April 2006 Archives

Old Saw

What the hell was up with last week's Smallville? I haven't even seen Saw or its sequel, but even I immediately recognized that the plot was a cheap rip-off of that movie right down to a bad guy in a goofy-looking mask. I'm guessing that the film plays it as a sadistic serial killer who forces his victims to play twisted games, and that it works in that context because the killer doesn't have some higher agenda. But on Smallville it made no sense whatsoever. The villain had his life ruined when Lionel's machinations bankrupted a company, losing his wife, house, and job. Yet he had enough resources to secure multiple flat screen monitors and a warehouse space; install industrial-grade custom gas lines, custom floors, custom doors with electronic switches, and a shatterproof glass tank; rig a floor so it could be electrified, and so forth. Riiiiiiiiight. And why does he go to all this trouble? To kill Lionel and hear him say he was sorry-- something that could have been accomplished with far less effort through the creative application of a hired goon with a pair of pliers.

I don't expect much from a superhero television show. I'll suspend disbelief and allow kryptonite to become a magical superpower-generating plot device to prevent Smallville from being a sleepy Kansas farm town. But I do like plots and character motivations to make sense. There was no excuse for this week's mess.

Comment (1) | last by Jesse McGatha, May 8, 2:46 PM

Tomorrow (Tuesday) is Free Cone Day at your local Ben & Jerry's. They may not offer Caramel Cone, but the price is right!

Comment (1) | last by Brian Leet, Apr 24, 5:56 PM

Top Chef

I love food. Not exactly a newsflash. Keep me the hell out of an automotive supply store, but drop me off in the kitchen section of Bed, Bath, & Beyond and I'll browse for hours. Like many recreational cooks, I've entertained fantasies of going to cooking school and turning my avocation into a vocation, but then I'm reminded of the grueling hours and repetitive nature of the work and I snap back to reality. Or in this case, reality television. Top Chef, from the makers of Project Runway, is basically Survivor in the kitchen. Each week the contestants-- all professional chefs with real skills-- compete in a "Quickfire" (read: immunity) challenge and an elimination challenge. The last chef standing gets bragging rights and a $100,000 prize.

Despite my bias towards the format and the material, the show didn't grab me right away. It suffered from the same problem as all other elimination shows-- they start with too many contestants to adequately cover in one hour. The camera flits from one to the next, spending too little time on each to get much sense for who they are. The problem is compounded when each of them is creating something, and as a viewer I want to know as much as possible about what they're making and how they're making it-- and there's just not enough time for that.

Fortunately the problem is self-correcting. As the series progresses and contestants get eliminated, those who remain get better defined and viewers are able to relate to them better. Now that we're down to just five, the balance is about right. Only three of those five-- Tiffani, Lee Anne, and Harold-- have any chance of winning (and it could really be any of them). Dave is a neurotic mess, and Stephen is a pedantic snob. But they're all fun to watch, and observing their creative process is fascinating.

Host Katie Lee Joel (Billy's wife) is execrable-- even Pinnochio wouldn't give such a wooden delivery. But the two resident food professionals-- chef Tom Calicchio and writer Gail Simmons-- make up for her, particularly Calicchio who takes a no-nonsense approach and isn't shy about asking pointed, trenchant questions of the contestants.

Top Chef is on Bravo, which probably means it's running a few times a day. If you like cooking or the business of food, check it out.

Comments (2) | last by Robin, Apr 20, 1:21 PM

Da Vinci Contest

Google is running a contest to promote the upcoming Da Vinci Code film. I haven't read the book yet-- I should really get around to it soon before the film hype ruins it for me-- but the contest promises to be fun anyway. Designed by multiple-time World Puzzle Championship winner Wei-Hwa Huang and other puzzlemakers at Google and within the Game community, the contest offers 24 puzzles over the course of as many days. Perhaps best of all, this is not a sweepstakes. The first 10,000 people to complete all the puzzles will receive a "cryptex" replica-- I assume this has meaning to people familiar with the book-- and will be eligible for the final 5-puzzle challenge. The first person to solve that challenge will win the grand prize package worth over $100,000 (none of that as cash, so prepare for a hefty tax hit). The puzzles are targeted at a mass audience, so don't feel like you have to be an expert to try it out. Sign up, play, and help make the promotion a success so we might see more of this type of thing in the future.

Comments (3) | last by Peter, May 10, 12:05 PM

The Apprentice: Zorg

This weekend I was in the Bay area to participate in a 15-hour Game called The Apprentice: Zorg. This Game was notable for two things. First was the very strong theming throughout the event, which essentially followed the plot of The Fifth Element with occasional artistic licenses. Four "ancient languages" (Braille, binary, Morse, and semaphore) and the periodic table were recurring themes, we traveled from Earth to Fhloston Paradise, we recovered and activated the four stones, we got a clue from Ruby Rhod, and ultimately changed a doomsday weapon into an inert ball of carbon. Most Games I've played in have fallen flat on the theming, which tends to be tacked on via supplementary material and not incorporated into the puzzles themselves, or else the subject matter is used in puzzles but without any coherent story behind them. The Apprentice: Zorg managed to follow a recognizable plot AND connect the puzzles to that plot and theme, which certainly enhanced my experience.

The second notable thing about the Game is that, while many people helped run the actual event, all of the puzzles were created by only one person. That singularity of vision helps explain the theming success. Ian, my headwrap's off to you.

One of my personal takeaways from this Game (and this isn't a criticism of Zorg, merely a realization I came to while playing) was that, when we're being scored for completing puzzles, getting skipped really stinks. Even without a scoring system, skips bum us out because it means we're experiencing one fewer puzzle. That puzzle might be offered at the end of the event, but in practice we never get together to do them later. In this case the skips were particularly frustrating at the time-- for one we were near the front of the pack, in another a timed puzzle came when our team was separated, and in a third we were encouraged to take a dinner break while solving, but then got skipped over the next puzzle as a result. So the skips seemed especially capricious. I understand that from a design perspective, some of what we skipped might have been "bonus" puzzles expressly for the purpose of slowing down the fastest team, never intended for all teams' consumption. And having run a Game, I understand why skips are necessary. I think managing teams' expectations can make a big difference. When the device showed us that there are 21 puzzles at the start of the event, we expected to see 21 puzzles. If the device hadn't shown us that information and the puzzles hadn't been numbered, we might never have known about the skips until afterward-- a situation that's preferable to knowing in the moment that we're being skipped. I'd also be reassured if I knew GC had planned skip points that only occurred at their weakest puzzles.
.
Speaking of which, The puzzles:

ZF5: An instruction manual for the ZF5 weapon, in which photos and text could be expressed as two-letter answers and entered into a grid. A perfectly fine get-your-mind-started opening puzzle.

Presidents: A sudoku puzzle in which the data for each row was found by identifying wives, pets, daughters, foods, running mates, election years, and quotes from the last nine presidents. We took much longer than we should have needed for this-- we made the classic Puzzle Hunt mistake of focusing on all the component parts first, rather than plugging our data into the sudoku grid as we acquired it which would have allowed some parallel solving.

Paths: Gather crossword clues posted throughout a park, solve for words having all five vowels, plug them into a circular path, and extract a message by following branching trees from the center outward according to all possible arrangements of five vowels (in alphabetical order). An error in a hint convinced us we had the wrong approach, causing us-- and most other teams-- to time out on this puzzle.

Magic: Perhaps expecting a better spread from the previous two puzzles, this array of Magic cards was located in a small interior space that couldn't accommodate more than 3-4 teams at once. When all teams started arriving within a few minutes of each other, GC shut down the location. This lack of scalability felt like a rookie mistake. The puzzle could easily have been distributed as a paper printout. We never solved this sodoku-like puzzle. Instead, as Dave described it to a teammate who stayed behind in our van, he intuited what the right answer was in a flash of insight based on the fact that the first letters of all the cards were either A, B, C, D, or R. ABRACADABRA, we were on our way.

Berkeley runaround: A series of puzzles utilizing the "four ancient languages" began with a fake BART ticket with four colored stops listed and a series of numbers which we quickly decoded to SEMAPHORES. Finding each stop on the BART map and interpreting the corresponding colored line at that point as semaphore gave us the answer. Next we were directed to a gelateria to order six specific flavors, which we did (yummy!). When we got nothing special along with the gelato, we realized the positions of these flavors in the refrigerated case formed Braille. Next was a traditional-style logic puzzle creating 5-digit binary, and finally a game of charades in which each word being charaded was a typographic symbol that could be interpreted as Morse code. Each of these puzzles yielded a set of six wooden cubes with letters on four faces, a number on the fifth, and a photo on the sixth. The photos in each set were thematically linked to earth, air, fire, or water. But we didn't know what to do with them. To figure that out, we had to play the Game of Four-- a game of 20 questions to figure out a six-letter word, but where our own questions couldn't have more than 4 letters per word (which, of course, we had to figure out for ourselves). The correct answer was TETRIS. The blocks could be grouped, one from each element, according to their pictures ("Things that move through their element", "Things that destroy their element", "Things that expel their element", etc) and arranged into Tetris shapes by matching letters on adjoining faces. These pieces could then be arranged, number-side up, into a 5x5 grid. Translating each number into the corresponding symbol from the periodic table gave us our answer. The runaround was fun-- the puzzles were the right level of difficulty for such a structure, and the cubes were a satisfying meta-puzzle. I don't think the meta was sufficiently clued internally-- there's no way we would have discovered the cross-element categories without being told to look for them. This was the first puzzle where we felt the hints started coming a little too quickly, before we had adequate time to utilize earlier hints. Getting that timing down is very hard. Too slow and you risk teams getting frustrated, too fast and you deprive teams of the satisfaction of solving for themselves.

Next we went to a children's museum on the Berkeley campus, where we were skipped over a puzzle involving the giant DNA strand outside the museum and went directly to a meeting with Zorg in "the boardroom" inside. There we found an array of numbered pieces from various board games. We made short work of this one, recognizing that each of the games was played on a grid and turning the size of each grid into a letter (only afterward did I realize that this step had been elegantly clued by placing the puzzle in "the boardroom").

Next was a scramble inside the museum, with our team working on two puzzles at once-- a trivia search and another use of the four ancient languages. Solving the first gave us a challenge to compose a rap incorporating a subset of stuff from a list of possibilities-- a reference to an Apprentice contestant, a shout-out to another Zorg team, a line using all letters of the alphabet, a reference to an exhibit from the museum, etc. Andrew dropped what he was doing to work on this, producing and performing a fine, fine rap and giving us enough info to backsolve the meta and skip the fourth puzzle involving a map of the area.

The aforementioned timed puzzle came next, before the whole team was together or back at our van. The device fed us word pairs every minute, and after four of them we realized they were thematically linked to the 12 Days of Christmas. This, along with hints, sent us on a wild goose chase trying to count the number of total gifts in the song and trying to index into each pair according to the number with which that pair is associated in the song. Only after the puzzle's virtual bomb "exploded" did we try the far simpler approach of extracting the common letter from each pair to get the answer, but since the bomb exploded we were skipped over the bonus scavenger hunt puzzle which could have been solved in transit to the next location. I liked the idea of a timed puzzle a lot, but we it started at a moment when we weren't prepared for it. I would have preferred the device to give us a very strong warning not to enter the start code until we were ready.

I thought the next puzzle was clever and fun-- a flow chart disguised as 12 pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The page numbers and goto references on each page, however, used a different numbering system that was clued by the content of the page. So an encounter with mole people told you that the numbers on that page were written in moles; a page with lots of traffic signs told you to translate the numbers as sines. Once translated you had a graph of letter nodes and paths between them, and you had to navigate the graph to generate a message. I think the puzzle would have been more elegant if each path was used only once, but otherwise I liked this one quite a bit.

A box of "Gemini Croquettes" contained a bunch of animal shapes with data in them. This,was an eastern/western zodiac puzzle, and was very nicely clued internally by messages on the box. We solved this pretty leisurely over dinner, and so our time on this one wound up being much longer than it would have had we all hunkered down on it at once, but it hung together nicely. Unfortunately the price of our dinner turned out to be skipping the next clue, the Multipass, which was a Roman numeral multiplication table with symbols instead of Roman numerals.

A CD from Ruby Rhod was one of the most disappointing puzzles in the Game. The material was terrific-- a radio broadcast from a very good Ruby Rhod impersonator-- but the puzzle it contained was overly simple and resolved to SPIN THE CD. The CD label had an obvious rainbow pattern of boxes and lines on it, and spinning the disc didn't produce anything interesting other than the rainbow effect you'd expect. We stared at it for a minute or so, not seeing anything, until someone said, "Let's just try RAINBOW," which was the correct (and anticlimactic) answer. It was just so obvious that none of us thought it was the answer-- we were expecting a bigger eureka moment.

Next we went to Fhloston Paradice for a pouch full of 20-sided dice with some values on each die colored in. Mapping these values onto a grid yielded a picture: SNEAKY 124533631. We thought SNEAKY was part of the answer, and it would have been nice for the device to tell us that it wasn't. We eventually solved it by plugging the numbers into TEA to yield SNAKE EYES, and only later realized that the numbers were indices into SNEAKY.

We went to the Diva for a concert, distributed on CD, but before we could listen to it mercenaries arrived and it was off to Q-Zar for a game of laser tag while trying to read the letters written on players' arms in UV ink. This was thematic and a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the subsequent puzzle in which team names were combined with each other and represented pictorially (Briny Taxi, Sharks on a Plane, etc). The coolest aspect was that teams weren't allowed to solve the puzzle alone-- we had to wait until another team arrived, and then solve it together. Nice!

The STONES puzzle-- in which we had to activate the four stones by applying the appropriate element to them-- was inevitable, and was a valiant attempt, but one that fell completely flat. We were given four numbered canisters, each containing something different-- a balloon, a capsule, water, and a lot of a white powder that turned out to be Borax). The markings on three of the canisters looked identical, and while it was clear that the one with the balloon represented air, it wasn't clear which was fire, water, or earth. A hint finally told us that we would get a color from each canister after applying the right element (we'd already extracted an orange Skittle from the innermost of the three nested balloons) and that the powder burned yellow when ignited. The capsule was clearly one of those foam things that blooms in water, but adding dirt to the water in the last canister didn't seem to do anything. We were supposed to add the red powder we'd been given at the very start of the Game, but there really wasn't any way for us to know that. A for effort, but the whole puzzle just fell completely flat.

Next came a set of five puzzles, one for each sense. I took the TASTE puzzle and quickly discovered that all five of the cupcakes were, in fact, chocolate-- just like they looked. Ripping the top off each cake revealed Skittles inside, which allowed each cupcake to become a letter when the Skittles were arranged in ROYGBIV order and treated as bits. The other four puzzles also involved 5-bit binary via sign language, Japanese characters, scratch-and-sniff stickers, and audio wave forms. The result told us to combine the white powder from the stones with the glue we got at the start of the game. This produced a viscous foamy substance. We entered FLOAM into the device and were told we were close, but they wanted a brand name with two five-letter words-- SILLY PUTTY (which I think is nothing like the substance we created, but why quibble when we got the right answer?).

Finally, a soccer ball with some hexes numbered was supposed to be a game of Minesweeper, but Dave once again pulled the answer out of his butt. I'm not even sure where the inspiration came from this time, but 7 minutes after getting the ball he just plugged in CARBON. Sometimes it's better to be psychic than good.

We enjoyed ourselves quite a bit, and appreciated the Mooncurser's Handbook shout-outs Ian scattered throughout, from the "____ module" format of the hints to the presence of "tsnuamic hydrogel" as one of the rap terms. We liked the 15-hour length more than Shinteki's typical 12. We're getting to know more of the Bay area players now, but I'm horrible with names and wouldn't mind if future Games made everyone wear name tags so I can start associating names with faces. I look forward to seeing everyone again in six weeks for Paparazzi.

Comments (11) | last by JDO, Apr 18, 8:02 PM

SNAP 2: Fools Rush In

April 1 marked the start of puzzle season and the beginning of what will hopefully become a new recurring puzzle event in Seattle, SNAP (Seattle and Neighboring Areas in Puzzling). This debut outing, SNAP 2: Fools Rush In, took place in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, the self-proclaimed center of the universe, from 1 to 6 PM. Twenty-five teams of four players each traveled throughout the area on foot, solving twelve puzzles before arriving at the finish. Three hint envelopes were provided with each puzzle; each opened envelope cost a team points. No electronic devices or reference materials were allowed other than the code sheet provided by the organizers.

Despite the event's title, our team decided not to rush. Our goal was simply to finish all the puzzles within the time allotted without taking any hints. We succeeded and even finished in third place behind two other hintless (but hardly clueless) teams, having a great time in the process.

The puzzles were all of appropriate difficulty for the event and most were conducive to team solving. The notable exception was the cleverly titled "Fool's Russian"-- a cryptogram utilizing Cyrillic-looking characters obtained at Fremont's bronze Lenin statue-- which (like all cryptograms) was difficult for more than two to work at once. I particularly liked a puzzle at the sundial atop the hill at Gasworks Park consisting of a dozen letters posted around the sundial and a dozen photos of different views from the sundial. When the most obvious approach-- face the same as each photo and read the letter you point toward-- failed, discovering the correct solution was a very satisfying process of utilizing all the information contained within the puzzle. A puzzle involving braided strands bound by rings was also elegant, with a satisfying "aha" upon realizing the datastream was encoded with each strand, rather than each ring. I also liked the Center of the Universe puzzle involving chains of compound words and phrases, which is one of my favorite puzzle paradigms. BRAIN _____ PROOF stumped us, but happily the puzzle was designed so that we could work around such a roadblock.

A "count the number of words before the word FOOL in these song fragments" puzzle suffered from its outdoor location, where it was hard to distinguish syllables from words. The puzzle would have been more successful in a more controlled environment, or with headphones. I heard a number of teams complain about a data collection puzzle utilizing a local mosaic, but our team had no complaints. In fact, since the data to be gathered was distributed on twelve strips of paper, I liked that the work could be split among the team and all of us could contribute. Only 3-4 teams were there when we arrived, however, and since the mosaic was on the ground I can understand how it might have been a nightmare if it got more crowded.

I have no idea how effective the hint system was, since we used none, but preparing three clue envelopes for each team for each puzzle must have been a bit of a pain. Since each site was staffed, the effort could have been avoided and the system streamlined by having the staffer hold one copy of each hint and a checklist for each team. A team requesting help would be shown a hint and checked off on the staffer's list.

Snap 2 was a great inaugural effort-- Shark Bait put together a solid, fun event. I hope we SNAP again soon. Next up this weekend... The Apprentice: Zorg.

Comments (2) | last by S, Apr 12, 1:56 PM

Tiptoeing

Every spring, northern Washington fields turn technicolor and visitors flock to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. I've managed to live in Seattle for fifteen years without ever seeing the tulips. Single guy. Tulips. I don't think so. But this spring I'm a little less single, which meant a lot more tulips.

Ooooh. Pretty colors.

"Festival" is really code for "cheap marketing device to lure tourists to local gardens where we'll charge them a few bucks for entry and then sell them bulbs and flowers at barely-discounted prices." Someone in the chamber of commerce woke up one day and said, "Gee, these fields are pretty. We sure grow a lot of tulips around here. If we called tulip season a FESTIVAL, we could boost the local economy!" I understand the Bellevue chamber of commerce is working on an Overpriced Condominium Festival and over on Aurora, a Festival of Whores is in the planning stages.

We ate at Calico Cupboard in La Conner, and while I could dwell on the atrociously long wait while several tables sat vacant but uncleared or the lackluster quality of the ensuing food, I'll choose instead to rhapsodize about the toffee bar I had for dessert. Oh. My. God. Imagine a big blondie with chunks of chocolate, toffee, walnuts, and pockets of creamy butterscotch or caramel (I always have a hard time telling them apart). It was a thick, hearty bar-- with every bite I felt like I should be resting my workboot on the stump of a newly-felled tree, smiling zestfully into the primevil forest, my trusty axe leaning jauntily beside me. It validated the entire trip. Now the quest is on for a recipe to produce this at home.

Comments (5) | last by Brian, Apr 16, 2:53 PM

Lost Scorecard

Programs! Getchyer programs! Can't know the players without a program! Let's review the Lost backstory connections, shall we?

Shannon's father crashed into Jack's future wife's car. Shannon's father died at Jack's hospital because Jack, working on his future wife, couldn't work on him.
Locke's dad is a con artist. Could he be the one who bilked Sawyer's family?
The woman Locke did a home inspection for was Sayid's girlfriend.
Libby was in the mental hospital with Hurley.
Kate's stepfather captured Sayid during the Gulf War.
Hurley owns the box company Locke works for, and both men worked for the same person, Randy.
Locke's mother was in the same mental hospital as Hurley and Libby.
The waitress who served Sawyer and Gordy was Kate's mother.

Any others?

Comment (1) | last by Mark Johnson, Apr 8, 5:32 PM

Terry's decision to use the immunity idol as leverage to get Casaya members to flip over to the other side was brilliant. But it came a week too late. The time to leverage the idol was last week, when La Mina was 4 members strong and flipping one from Casaya would create a 5-5 tie. Offer Danielle-- or even better, Cirie-- the idol under those conditions, and perhaps they'd have taken the deal. But Danielle thinks she's in an alliance that will become the final four. She has no incentive to bail out of that. Moreover, who would you rather go to the final four with-- athletic powerhouses Austin, Terry, and Sally, or the dysfunctional nightmare that is Casaya? If it were me, I'd think I'd have a much better chance of manipulating Casaya or flat out beating them in the challenges.

But now that Terry has revealed the idol to Danielle, it was insane of him not to give it to Austin (the logical target). Once Terry decided that it was more useful to him as a tool to keep his alliance's numbers up than as a personal shield, he should have stuck with that instinct and protected Austin. Aras would have gone home, making the numbers 5-3 and putting the hidden idol back onto Exile Island. Reclaiming that idol would be the entire game plan. Granted, it's a huge gamble-- you can't blame Terry for thinking it might be safer to rely on his ability to win personal immunities to keep him in the game, holding onto the hidden idol as a failsafe. He is the biggest target, and if the horrible Break the Plates challenge gets used for immunity this season he's toast. Or maybe he gave the idol to Sally, thinking the other players would try to outmaneuver them in the "avoid the hidden idol" shell game.

I hope Terry can pull a Tom and power through on his own skills. But if he doesn't, I'd love to see Cirie win the money. Sure, she's a radar-skimmer. But she's the craftiest one we've seen in a long time, and to pull it off she'll have to make some kind of move once they're down to 5 or 6. And there's nobody in the core alliance of four-- especially not Shane or Courtney-- who would be nearly as satisfying as a winner.

Comment (1) | last by Travis Eberle, Apr 7, 11:47 PM