July 2006 Archives

Shinteki: Decathlon II

The pirates of Briny Deep made port in the east Bay area of California last weekend for the latest 12-hour puzzle event from the good people of Shinteki: Decathlon II. And the operative word for the weekend was HOT. The west coast is in the throes of a heat wave (even here in Seattle, where it's a balmy 90 degrees by day and a scant 82 at midnight). The heat dragged all teams down, making it difficult to find a comfortable place to sit down and solve. While everyone would have preferred a few clouds, the overbearing heat didn't deter players from enjoying the well-organized event.

Briny Deep fell victim to a classic (for us) blunder, letting a single bad data point deter us from pursuing the correct path. The 60-90 minutes we lost on that puzzle wound up being costly, as we ran out of time and failed to reach the final puzzle or solve the penultimate one. That sent us from a possible first place finish to third.

But enough about us. You want to hear about the puzzles.

Sprint: A four-part relay on the athletic field/track of Merritt College. One team member had to work with players from three other teams to solve an oversize jigsaw puzzle, then run a lap. Yes, even in the absurd pre-noon heat. The next team member had to solve a Rubik's cube (we'd been prewarned about this and provided with solving algorithms), then run a lap. The third team member (me) had to eat twelve saltines without any water, then run a lap. The final team member had to research six facts in a provided World Almanac, but no lap was required. Aside from the cube, which some teams had great trouble with (Andrew solved ours in about 4 minutes), none of the tasks was very hard and it was fun to heckle from the stands and cheer on our teammates. I could have done without running the laps, however-- really, the last thing I want to do before spending the rest of the day in a van with three other people is get all of us sweaty. Good times. To their credit, the Shinteki crew spent less time than normal on an introductory spiel (and the heat silenced any hecklers in the crowd, who probably sensed that their rapier wit played better to an audience that wasn't medium rare) and got us going as soon as possible.

Classic: An acrostic. I do loves me the word puzzles. The twist to this one was that the grid consisted of the names of gold medalist decathletes (for which the alamanc from Sprint came in handy). Making that connection was a nice little aha moment, and since three copies of the puzzle were provided, it was easy for everyone on the team to contribute.

Orientation: The delivery for this clue was a little odd. We received it at the Berkeley Rose Garden, but the text of the clue included a conceptual street map of nearby Emeryville. With all of the intriguing placards of rose species throughout the garden, it seemed very bizarre to us that we'd just pick up a clue at this location and then immediately leave without doing anything else. But that's exactly what we were expected to do, and 5 minutes later a free hint told us as much. Why not send us directly to Emeryville and give us the clue at one of the places on the map? A cool thing about the puzzle itself is that it had us doing something we'd never done before-- gather data by driving around the city. We cruised the designated area in search of utility boxes bearing stick figures engaged in various mysterious activities. When we found an intersection that had such a box, we extracted a letter from the corresponding square of the map grid. A simple puzzle but one that all of us in the (blissfully air-conditioned) van were able to contribute to without leaving the (blissfully air-conditioned) van. Woohoo!

Manipulation: This was a really nice puzzle. We were given a set of hard plastic strips and ball-shaped connectors, and we had to assemble them into an icosahedron. Each strip was numbered and had something written on each end-- a city, food, mayor, year, or landmark. When properly assembled, all the items related to the same Olympic city would be attached to the same connector. Once that was assembled, we had to identify each face of the icosahedron by the sum of the values on its three edges. An accompanying clue had lists of these values, and we needed to roll the die from value to value according to that list to draw letters in the final answer. A very good team puzzle and a fun way to construct an object. It also contained a good implied puzzle-- once the die was assembled, how do you associate each sum with a face to facilitate rolling? After chuckling at the Burninators' frenzied attachment of numbered slips of paper to the struts, we wound up doing the same thing.

AIM: More Rubik's Cube fun. Now that we all had an unscrambled cube, we needed to label it in a certain way and then manipulate it to duplicate 18 patterns. As it turned out, each pattern could be created by finding the appropriate face (which, on a Rubik's cube, is always the color of the center square) and then rotating the rightmost column 1-3 turns. We initially tried finding a message on the final cube, and one face read "EXIT". But the hint device told us that was inconsequential. Next we reset the cube and tried to extract a message from the new letter brought into view to create each pattern, but that gave us garbage. Finally we tried the right approach, which was to look at the old letter being rotated off of the designated face, instead of the one being rotated onto it.

That brought us to a new location where we were given a reflective, filmy square and told to use it to look inside our problem. Also at the site was a giant metal cube, each face a solid color matching a Rubik's Cube. Three other teams were also at the site, and none had yet figured out what to do. Within seconds of getting our film, Andrew slapped the thing down on the surface of the giant cube and PRESTO-- letters appeared on the film, which reacted to magnets inside the cube. By moving the film around the cube, we revealed different letters beneath the surface at the same positions as the letters on our smaller cube. Unfortunately, we made another classic blunder-- leaving the van without a writing utensil or clipboard. By the time we rectified that problem, the other teams had gravitated toward the cube and there was no way for us to get our information without revealing the secret to the other teams. So we just shrugged, told the other three teams they owed us, and slapped down the film to start taking notes. Once we had that info, all we needed to do was replace the letters in our initial answer from the small cube with the letters from the same locations on the bigger cube to get our final answer.

Knowledge: A CD contained "news broadcasts" describing fictitious Olympic scandals in which medal winners in various events were found guilty of cheating. Their countries of origin weren't stated directly, but were clued obliquely. We had to transcribe the key data-- events, medals, and clues-- and then solve for the countries. Then we were stumped. We knew the medals were indices-- 1 for gold, 2 for silver, 3 for bronze. But indexing into the countries or the event names produced garbage. We banged our heads on this for over an hour, finally stopping to get a bite to eat and try to figure out what we were missing. We listened to the messages again and I noticed that "platform diving" had been transcribed as just "diving". When the event indexing looked like garbage (IILEDGEAL), Andrew had abandoned that approach partway through the data. This changed the second indexed letter from I to P, giving us IPLEDGEAL, which suddenly looked more promising. We finished the indexing and got I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE, kicking ourselves for not being thorough in the first place since we would have spotted ALLEGIANCE at the bottom of our data had we just completed the process. I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE clued us in to look at the flags of the clued nations. The fact that RINGS was the only repeated event in the puzzle and was clearly set apart from the others by spacing suggested that Olympic Rings were important. Putting two and two together, we realized that each flag contained some of the 5 colors of the Olympic rings, and that allowed us to convert the flag into 5-bit binary values, and thus letters.

Enigma: A yellow piece of paper curled inside a sealed tube, meant to suggest a urine sample, held our next clue-- seemingly a cryptogram. The flavor text about drug tests had us trying to decrypt the text as names of steroids or other drugs, but that went nowhere. Then Dave and I simultaneously noticed that in the two lines of flavor text, "justify" happened to be directly over "right". The light bulb went off, and we typed in each word of the puzzle text and justified everything to the right. Sure enough, one column of the text gave us a message, telling us how to decrypt the text. Doing so revealed a message in another column, telling us to Caesar shift all the letters in yet another column. That gave us instructions to shift yet another column, and so on, until we finally got an answer string.

Wild Card: A stash of arcade tokens led us to mini-golf course where we had to earn 400 tickets in redemption games to earn our next clue, a pack of baseball cards with Shinteki players on them (each team had been asked to send in photos of their members in baseball poses), and the scorecard for a fictional baseball game. We immediately set about extracting all the key data from the cards: the players' fake names, their positions, the numbers they were assigned, and the location of the baseball icon on their card (left, center, or right). There were 26 players, and their first names all began with a different letter of the alphabet. Eureka, an order. Now for their last names. If their baseball was on the left side, take the first letter of their last name. If it was on the right, take the last letter. Players with a ball in the center had the same first and last letters, so it didn't matter which one was used. That gave us a message telling us to construct a sudoku grid. The two numbers assigned to each player represented grid coordinates, and in baseball each position is associated with a number from 1 to 9. Plugging each player's position number into the grid at their given coordinates gave us our givens, and then we had to solve the grid. We'd used all our baseball card data, so now it was time to look at that scorecard, which showed the score for each inning. We noticed that only one team scored per inning. If the top team scored, say, 4 runs in inning 1, we needed to extract the 4th number down from column 1. If the bottom team scored 6 in inning 2, we needed the sixth number from the bottom in column 2. This gave us a 9-digit number. The final step was realizing that the digital font used for the scoreboard values was a hint-- we needed to turn our 9-digit number upside-down like a calculator and read the digits as letters for our final answer. We liked this puzzle right up until the scorecard. Unless you knew that you had to read the number upside-down, there was no way to be sure that you were doing the right thing with your number extraction. I'm sure many teams just extracted the nth number from each column from the top down-- going bottom-up for the bottom team was an arbitrary and unnecessary wrinkle. And our first guess was that each number would turn into a letter from A-I, so nothing seemed like it was working. An additional built-in hint for the calculator trick was called for here, I think, instead of relying on teams to make that leap from just the font.

Endurance: We had less than an hour remaining when we got to this puzzle, so we took more hints than we would have normally (and still finished about 5-10 minutes too late to get credit), so it's hard for me to judge the puzzle's fairness. I loved the presentation, which was an album-like sheet of poster board with a 10x10 grid of photographs. If you correctly identified the 10 photos across the top, the first letters spelled CATEGORIES. The idea was that the photos could be divided into ten different categories, with ten photos per category. Each picture had a ten-letter name. Create a 10x10 grid for each category, with each item listed in the order found in the grid, and the main diagonal of each grid gave you another 10-letter word. Recurse, putting all of these new words into another 10x10 grid, and you got the final answer. We had a number of problems with this puzzle. We never got all the categories correct, we had no idea who some of the people in the photos were, and some pictures could have gone into multiple categories. Differentiating became a matter of "the only way for us to get 10 items in category A is if photo X is an A instead of a B," which isn't very satisfying and feels messy. Category-based puzzles are very hard to construct without this kind of ambiguity. This ambiguity made the photos we couldn't identify even more frustrating, because we couldn't say for sure what category they went into. This seemed like it would have been a better puzzle for a puzzle hunt environment. The group-participation phase of identifying the photos was much less than half the solving time. Once that phase ended, the Excel phase began and it was hard for more than 2 people to be engaged. That's fine in a puzzle hunt with multiple puzzles happening in parallel, but in a Game I want the Excel phase to be small so that everyone on the team is having fun.

Teamwork: Time ran out before we could get to the final puzzle, although we took a copy home with us and look forward to solving it later-- possibly as a warm-up the night before Hogwarts in September.

Despite the withering heat, I thought this was a great event. The puzzles were a varied mix and generally excellent, and the entire course was packed into a manageably small area for minimal drive times. I was somewhat disgruntled after Shinteki: Untamed a year and a half ago, but Shinteki: Decathlon and Shinteki: Decathlon II were both solid, entertaining events. The easy availability of hints at your own pace make the Shinteki events very newbie-friendly, so if you've been intrigued by my puzzle event exploits I encourage you to find a trio of like-minded friends and take a weekend vacation to the Bay Area the next time the Shinteki wagon pulls into town (although with Shinteki principals Linda and Brent's impending baby, that might be a while). I continue to look forward to future Shinteki offerings.

Comments (2) | last by Ian, Jul 30, 8:49 PM

Tonight's Big Brother was quite possibly the most interesting in the show's 7-year history. That's certainly true for the veto ceremony, which is usually a big no-op snooze-fest. The ONLY player I knew I wanted to see in the All-Star season was Will, because he's a double threat-- a good player, and good television. The American public has a very short memory (or else everyone who watched the first couple of seasons has moved on to greener pastures), but I was still stunned that he didn't get voted in by the audience. Thankfully the producers are more savvy, and thus we were treated to the most brilliant speech ever on the show.

Everyone recognizes that Will is a very strong player, and in all likelihood the best Big Brother player ever. And yet nobody seems to be in a big hurry to boot his pale heiny off the show. Frankly, I don't understand it. The floaters might think that he and Mike are necessary to combat season 6, but what are the season sixers thinking? Mike and Will are an unbreakable alliance. Nothing will ever drive a wedge between them. They will also be voting as a team and competing as a team. They're clearly the strongest threat, and yet season six is trying to keep them around! It makes no sense.

But Will has clearly discovered that his poop, miraculously, doesn't stink. And so he's turned up his game. He's done exactly what he said he did-- made the target on his back so big that it's invisible. By saying he hates everyone and promising to throw every challenge, he's made it seem like he really doesn't care about winning the game. He's defanged himself in his opponents' eyes. If he's going to throw the competitions, why vote him out when you can get rid of a more threatening competitor like Jase? Even better, Will's put all his cards on the table. He's told everyone his plan, he's told them he hates them, and so when he makes it to the final two he'll be able to say that he never lied to anyone. He showed them the knife-- can he help it if they placed their neck beneath it and shimmied back and forth?

The only question now is whether the other players will wake up in time to disarm him.

Comment (1) | last by jodi, Jul 26, 7:29 AM

You know Joel Siegel? Short guy, bushy mustache, reviews movies, likes the dopey pun? Yeah, that Joel Siegel. He's been reviewing movies for almost three decades, and apparently he's never walked out on a film. Until now. Not only did Siegel walk out of a critics' screening of Kevin Smith's new film Clerks II, but he did so vocally. Smith took Siegel to task on his blog for being non-professional, and went on a radio show to discuss it. The show called Siegel, and miracle of miracles he actually took the call to discussed the issue-- giving his publicist a new ulcer, I'm sure. Listen to the clip and marvel at a man in denial.

SarrettAdams is pleased to announce the release of our latest game, The Crazy Mixed-Up Zoo Game from Simply Fun. This is a memory game for kids ages 4 and up. An array of oversized animal shapes are spread on the table or floor, and while everyone else closes their eyes, one player exchanges the positions of two of them. Everyone else opens their eyes and races to figure out which two animals have moved using their magnetic score cards. One of the things that excites us about this game is that the artwork was done by our friend and gaming group member, Damon Brown. The Crazy Mixed-Up Zoo Game is only available directly from Simply Fun or through their in-home consultants.

Comments (2) | last by damon, Jul 18, 9:43 AM

Last year at this time, Pat Kiernan presided over a regrettably short-lived game show called Studio 7. The show didn't take off, but the mondo-droll Kiernan definitely had the goods. So when he sold VH1 on The World Series of Pop Culture, producer Michael Davies tapped Kiernan to assume the hosting duties.

Kiernan's ultra low-key delivery grounds the show with a certain credibility perhaps unwarranted by the subject matter. It would have been easy for the show to go in the other direction, sailing over the top with wacky, zany antics, ├╝ber-geeky contestants, and an absurdly enthusiastic host. Instead, the show manages to be both whimsical and dignified, celebrating pop culture without mocking the players devoted to it.

The format, while simple, works. Each of two three-player teams sends one player to the microphone to compete head-to-head in a best-of-six trivia contest. All the questions belong to the same category-- Spielberg Films, TV Spinoffs, Hip-Hop Music, etc. If a player can't answer a question, it bounces to their opponent for a steal. The player answering the most questions eliminates their opponent. The last team with uneliminated players wins the match and continues in the tournament. The last team standing takes home $250,000.

Comments (3) | last by worldofpopc, Mar 16, 8:04 AM

Story Power

If you've ever doubted the power of a good story, this will change your mind. A 26-year-old guy from Montreal wanted to get out of apartment life and start living in a house. But with no money and no job, his prospects were limited. All he had was one red paper clip. He decided that would be enough, and through a blog, Craig's List, and media exposure he never sought, he managed to make fourteen trades in one year and today finally parlayed that paper clip into a house in Kipling, Saskatchewan along with a key to the town. Along the way he hung out with Corbin Bernsen and rocked with Alice Cooper. And a big part of how he got good trades was that people wanted to be part of the story. Although, admittedly, the Corbin Bernsen connection was a stroke of amazingly good fortune.

And if you think that's good, you should check this out. A 21-year-old British college student managed to sell one million pixels of his home page, in blocks of 100, for a dollar a pixel. In less than a year. All because of the audacity of his idea and the power of the story.

Something for nothing-- it's the American Dream. And neither of them are even from America.

Nakomis? Really, America? Nakomis, Diane, and Erika? What, not enough personality-challenged talking heads for you on television now that Bravo's jettisoning Katie Lee Joel for next season's Top Chef? And self-centered Jase over megamaniacal Will? Take the cell phones away from the hormone-crazed teenyboppers and hand them to viewers who actually want an interesting season.

Thankfully, the producers came to the rescue, saving the nation from its own folly and throwing Danielle, Will, Mike, Marcellas, and Alison into the house where they belong. I'm glad they put George into the house as well, because Will and Mike had it exactly right-- he's a minnow among sharks, as out of his league here as the Hanlons were on Treasure Hunters. Ironically, he's such an underwhelming threat that he's likely to survive in the game for quite a while.

Unlike Danielle, who made her move far too early and overplayed her hand. She needed to recede into the background and try and disprove her reputation for evilness. To the extent that anyone in an All-Stars game can fly under the radar, that would have been her best strategy. The two biggest targets are the Season Six alliance and the unbreakable Will/Mike friendship. Like Janelle said, Danielle wasn't even on the radar-- until she opened her mouth and painted a target on her forehead. Alison just got caught in the crossfire. Fortunately for Alison, everyone wants Danielle out more. On the other hand on Big Brother, unlike Survivor, people often choose to keep the bigger threats around for a while under the theory that they'll be easy to get out later since everyone wants them gone. Which is a great plan if you're the only one using it, but if everyone's on the same page it means the big threats stick around and the small fish get fried.

The Witless Hanlons

The casting director for Treasure Hunters must have said an extra prayer of gratitude the night the "Wild" Hanlons' audition tape arrived. In all the seasons of Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother (and yes, I've watched them all) nobody-- and I mean nobody has been as inept, ill-suited for the game, or more guaranteed to generate good television than the Hanlons. They personified every negative stereotype of the southern hick, and like swine at a cocktail party seemed blissfully unaware of how out of their league they really were. The list of their blunders-- after only three episodes!-- is too long to list. The Browns had it exactly right-- the Hanlons wouldn't let the Browns ride on their boat, but the Hanlons then wanted to ride on the back of the Browns. Unbelievable. Their luck or their karma finally ran out tonight. I'm deeply sorry to see them go. They had less hope of winning than Walter Mondale, but they were a hoot to watch.

Does anyone else the lighthouse on that box artifact looks like a stylized Eiffel Tower? I think the teams will be going to France, and we'll be seeing the box again then.

Comments (4) | last by Anonymous, Jul 26, 5:20 PM

X3: How to kill a franchise in one easy step. The film version of the Dark Phoenix story lacked any pathos. Hugh Jackman will return in Wolverine, but Patrick Stewart seems gone even if Professor X survives. We never saw Cyclops get disintegrated (a cut scene, or intentional?), so James Marsden might return, but Famke Jansen is clearly out and both Mystique and Magneto are neutralized (itty bitty chess piece movement not withstanding). Kelsey Grammer was spot-on as Beast, however, and it was nice to see Storm finally get to do something. There are enough characters in the X-verse to sustain a film series forever, but eradicating the characters at the heart of the mutant universe isn't the direction I'd have chosen.

Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale's story-- or the version of it told in the film-- is remarkable. I particularly love that he makes millions today, legitimately, as a security consultant to banks and corporations. Leonardo DiCaprio was terrific in the film, but the real stars were the retro soundtrack, costumes, and sets. And a short segment from the real episode of To Tell the Truth on which Frank Abagnale appeared can be viewed online.

Napoleon Dynamite: A film with no believable characters in which nothing actually happens. Only the virtuoso dance finale deserves any measure of cult status-- everything else about the film is entirely forgetable.

An Inconvenient Truth: Best. Powerpoint. Ever. The comparison shots of various glaciers today vs. 10, 20, or 30 years ago leave in indelible impression of how royally screwed we are. And if that's not enough for you, the infamous cherry picker should do the trick. If Al Gore had shown this six years ago, he'd be the president today. Some say this film is paving the way for a Gore in 2008 campaign. I know I'd vote for him with far more enthusiasm than any of the Democratic candidates generated two years ago. Enthusiasm and Al Gore. Now there are two concepts you never expected to see in the same sentence.

Heart of the Game: Look in their eyes! Look in their eyes! What flabbergasts me is that as a sophomore, the star player was getting letters of interest from colleges across the country. Then she gets pregnant, misses a season, but returns as a fifth year senior and not only becomes an honors student but leads her team to the state championship-- and colleges don't want to have anything to do with her. Can anyone explain that to me?

Comment (1) | last by Chris Lemon, Jul 4, 12:01 PM

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