seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
HUNT HUNT HUNT HUNT HUNT

(Very sorry to be missing the in-person experience this year. Everyone who's in Cambridge, have fun!)
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I almost forgot one of my favorite Hunt stories. Mid-day Sunday, we were a little bit in the weeds. We were four metas from the end, and we'd solved at least three puzzles in each of those rounds, and in some cases four or five or six. In all four rounds, we'd made at least some discovery about how the meta worked. In some rounds, we knew exactly how the meta worked, and needed more puzzle solutions to make further progress. In other rounds, we figured we had enough answers, but needed a new insight into how the meta worked that likely wouldn't come with any new answers. So we went through the open puzzles with an eye to triage- which puzzles would help us the most to solve metas, and which puzzles seemed the most likely to crack with new eyes on them.

One of the rounds that needed the most help was the Lovecraft-themed Randolph Carter round, where we only had three of the eight solutions but we had some fairly strong ideas about how the meta worked (some of which turned out to be right, while others turned out to be wrong). One of the puzzles in this round was a scavenger hunt. There is usually a small scavenger hunt as part of Mystery Hunt... it is not really the kind of puzzle that Mystery Hunt excels at or that most of the people who come to Hunt come for, but scavenger hunts are fun and some of the people who come to Hunt do like to do them. I'm often one of them, though it depends on the nature of the scavenger hunt. On the other hand, Palindrome as a team tends not to like Mystery Hunt scavenger hunts, because we are a large, mostly carpetbagging team and both of those things present challenges for Mystery Hunt scavenger hunts 1) Mystery Hunt scavenger hunts are usually handicapped by team size, so that larger teams need to provide more items to satisfy the judges. and 2)Many items in a scavenger hunt are ultimately household items, or household items with minor adjustments, but if home is hundreds of miles away for most of the team, they are not available to be used in the scavenger hunt.

The scavenger hunt this year was particularly poorly suited for us because it prohibited creating new items and purchasing items specifically for the hunt. All items had to be pre-existing property of team members, and again, most of us were living the weekend out of a hotel room. So we looked at the hunt and most of us wrote it off as not worth devoting team resources to. At this team meeting where we were triaging puzzles, we reiterated this: it would be great to have the answer associated with the scavenger hunt, since it would greatly help us in solving a crucial meta, but there are probably better uses of our time given how difficult it would be for us to amass such items. If someone really wanted to do the scavenger hunt, we never tell anyone on the team not to do a puzzle they really want to, but it was not encouraged.

But we do have some team members who live locally and go home to sleep. And right after this noon meeting we got a call from one of them saying that they would be there in an hour and they had the whole scavenger hunt completed! We were shocked. All of a sudden an essential puzzle we had written off had fallen into our laps.

And then she showed up at HQ with a few dozen utterly ridiculous objects that she happened to own, ready to be judged. Jewelry with the specific combination of metals and glass required. Dog chew toys in the exact right shapes. Puzzles made of wood and plastic. It of course wasn't that simple. The judges disallowed a couple of the items she'd brought, so a few of us rallied to quickly improvise replacements. But just like that, we had a vital answer, and an hour later we solved the Randolph Carter meta, in large part because of this unexpected act of Hunt heroism.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Hmm... I have no idea how to write a summary of my Mystery Hunt experience. So many things happened in so tight an amount of time. There was so much energy and excitement and enthusiasm and frustration and just sheer brilliance in our team headquarters it was often overwhelming.

I drove up to Cambridge with [personal profile] thirdblindmouse and her boyfriend Thursday evening. The ride up was incredibly easy: barely any traffic, no weather issues, just a smooth shoot up the highway. I settled in in my hotel room. In the morning, I met up with a teammate at our team storage locker to ferry stuff to team HQ. I then drove over to a kosher deli to pick up one of their Shabbos specials. This was a clever idea I'll have to remember to do for future years- the food served for all my Shabbos meals this year, and meant that I ate better than I have at any past Hunt. Then I rejoined the team to help set up our room while other team members went to kickoff.

Kickoff happened, then as usual everyone regrouped at team HQ to wait for puzzles to open. And waited. And waited. There were some technical difficulties with the site server software for the Hunt, so an email went out to let everyone know the Hunt wouldn't start for another hour. I popped over to Control Group to say hi to friends while we waited.

And then puzzles started and I pretty much didn't stop moving. Suddenly we had about twenty puzzles all at once to work on. I flipped through them and found one that I thought looked like a sports puzzle, Mad Dogs. I started plugging away the data, made sense of where it came from, grabbed a couple teammates to help out with data collection, and forty minutes later I had my first solve of the Hunt. It was a good way to start things. It turned out to be the closest I had to a solo solve all Hunt, but that's okay, Hunt is about teamwork and I made important contributions to solving a whole bunch of puzzles. I slowed down on puzzling when sundown fell and I had to shut off my computer and only offer what puzzling help I could within the restrictions of Shabbat.

Palindrome solved the first metas and metameta scarily quickly and we jumped out to the early lead as we discovered that the Dog Show theme of the first round was a ruse to conceal the Hunt's true theme.

We were given instructions for a runaround puzzle- a set of clues guiding us around MIT's campus. The problem was that most of the words in the clues were replaced with the word 'dog', so we had to figure out what the word dog was substituting for in each case in order to navigate the clues. We blundered our way around campus, figuring out the clues. Eventually we were led to a member of Team Luck who revealed the true theme- the movie Inception.

The Hunt's inception theme honestly used Inception's big ideas better than the movie did- it used the space of dreams and manipulating dreams to explore stories as far ranging as Lovecraft and King Arthur and Endymion, always connected ultimately to the idea of dreaming. We assumed the role of an inceptor who'd been attacked by the dreamer's defenses and knocked into a deeper dream world. In order to get out, we had to solve puzzles to remember that we were in a dream, then solve further puzzles to figure out how to deliver the 'kick' to wake up the rest of our team and escape the dreamworld. Everything was well-themed and the artwork was gorgeous throughout, creating an ambiance that made solving the puzzles very satisfying.

After the runaround, we continued to puzzle for a while. I worked on a puzzle called Feel the Music, one of my favorite puzzles of the Hunt, because it had a lovely and unlikely set of realizations and a group of five of us working on the puzzle split the discoveries about equally over a five minute period of fantastic collaboration. There is really nothing as thrilling as a strong group solve, with everyone building on each other's ideas to work through to a surprising solution.

I went to sleep fairly early. I went to Shacharit services at the Tremont Street Shul, which were nice, and kibbitzed a bit at kiddush before heading back to puzzle. I helped a little bit with a few puzzles, but mostly I was waiting for sundown to fall. I spent a good deal of time on Vagabond Tours, the most adorable event of Hunt for me, since the 3 ten to twelve year old's on the team took charge of leading us on this photo-scavenger hunt and a good time was had by all.

Fortunately, sundown was perfectly timed for the puzzle most ideally pitched to me.

Before the Hunt, we went around the room in Palindrome HQ introducing each other and saying what puzzle we were hoping to see in the Hunt. Palindrome is a gigantic team and a lot of us don't know each other well, so this was a chance to get a sense not only for names but for what our puzzling strengths were. A surprising amount of the really specific puzzle requests came to fruition in this Hunt. I asked for a Judaism puzzle and the Hunt responded with a doozy, the tricky Provision. (It took us about 18 hours from initial approach to solution, but I no longer feel bad because I see that only four other teams solved the puzzle.) Provision came out about ten minutes after sundown Saturday for us, and we pretty quickly realized it was referencing the MIT Latke-Hamentashen debates. Up my alley? Just a little bit. I spent most of the evening watching Latke-Hamentashen arguments on youtube and trying to figure out how to extract an answer from the data. My favorite moment of the Hunt may have been when I said, "Wait a minute... have we tried using HEBREW Morse Code?)

We continued making progress through the Hunt's rounds, knocking out the early metas pretty easily, but we did slow down over time. In [livejournal.com profile] devjoe's Hunt recaps, he notes that this is pretty typical for Palindrome, as most of our team goes to sleep at night. Apparently we lost our first place status to Left Out on Saturday and slipped into third or fourth place by Sunday, though Sunday afternoon, when Team Luck visited the leading teams to try to make a decision about whether to postpone their original intention of closing Hunt HQ at Sunday 6PM, they concluded that we were just as much in it as anyone else, if we could just bust through the last few metas.

We did eventually crack them, leading to the LIMBO round in which we had to figure out one last piece of information from all previous rounds in order to make it to the runarounds. But unfortunately as we were working on the LIMBO puzzles, we got word that Setec Astronomy had found the coin. A bunch of our team stuck with the puzzles, solved LIMBO and went on the runarounds anyway, but I kicked it in, and decided I'd had enough. I hadn't slept since Saturday morning and I was hungry and tired. I called [personal profile] ambyr, who was in the Boston area for Arisia, and found that she was fortunately in Cambridge and hungry at the moment, so we met up for dinner and then I crashed back at my hotel room. And then a couple hours later there was pounding on my hotel room because my roommate's keycard had demagnetized and his name wasn't on the room, so they wouldn't let him in without my approval. I was so dead tired that within seconds of letting him in, I was asleep again.

In the morning I helped clean our HQ and drove stuff back to our storage locker, then went to wrap-up to hear funny stories and say hi to some friends on other teams. Then we drove back south and I slept some more.

A couple more anecdotes:

-For one puzzle, a group that had slaved over it for hours finally called in an answer they were confident of: BOVINE PORN. When we got the call from HQ telling us it was wrong (the right answer was ONLINE PORN), the person answering the phone said that she was shocked it was wrong, and then got embarrassed when she realized there was something of a confession of proclivities in her declaration of shock. We later, on a puzzle involving sheep, called in OVINE PORN, mostly so the same person answering our phone could proclaim her shock that this answer, too, was incorrect.

-A puzzle about Epic Rap Battles of History required as a final step that we submit our own. Our team created a rap battle between us and Team Luck, with our team's telephone (where we received confirmation of answers) standing in for Luck and using text-to-speech to deliver its raps. I find the rap hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpA93QPAlKg

-When we were on Limbo, we were stuck on the first puzzle but we knew it was a four letter answer, so we kept trying mostly-educated guesses. The person answering our phone apologized for calling in so much and was told "Call in anything you want." So we called in "Anything I want", and then we called in "Send us a Pizza." When Luck called us back to tell us these answers were wrong, they also gave us the phone number for a local pizza shop. :P
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I'll be heading up to Cambridge Thursday night for the MIT Mystery Hunt. My first Mystery Hunt was the 2006 SPIES Hunt, so this is the tenth anniversary of my first Hunt. I've missed a few in the middle, though, so I'm fairly certain this is my seventh Hunt attending in person, on my fourth team name. I've hunted with: Lake Effect Snow, Just for the Halibut, Engage Le Jeu Que Je Le Gagne, and now Dammit I'm Mad. (The former two were more or less the same team, just before and after a split that also generated the team Grand Unified Theory of Love, while the latter two are the same team, just the tradition that team Palindrome picks a new palindromic name every year)

Mystery Hunt is so variable and unique that it's hard to describe, but in the years I've attended it's always been one of the year's highlights. Roughly speaking, the idea is: a coin is hidden on MIT's campus. In order to find it, solvers must solve puzzles that provide clues to the location. It's rather more than that, though. Puzzles are typically organized into rounds: the answers to round puzzles become the clues to 'metapuzzles'. Sometimes the answers to metapuzzles become the clues to 'metametapuzzles', sometimes the structure becomes even more complicated than that, and ultimately solving enough puzzles will generally lead you to the 'runaround', a set of elaborate final puzzles, often featuring physical components, and revealing the location of the coin. The only year that my team got to do the final runaround, puzzles included a life-sized logic puzzle. One would propose a solution and then people would act as the pieces on the grid and move through the steps of the logic puzzle until the solution was reached. Puzzles throughout the Hunt are ingenious and devilish- final runaround puzzles are ingenious, devilish, and also really, really cool.

But even if you don't see the final runaround, even if you are like some of my teams have been and you struggle to finish in the middle of the pack, the Mystery Hunt is just an incredible intellectual adventure, one that tests so many different kinds of creativity and imagination and knowledge and puzzle solving ability. A Mystery Hunt puzzle can come in so many different shapes, and require knowledge of so many diverse kinds of knowledge, that the whole weekend is just thrill after thrill, if your brain is wired like mine is. And the best part is that you do the event in teams, so that you get to spend a whole weekend hanging out with a bunch of awesome people whose brains are also wired like mine is.

Or to put it another way, Thomas Snyder's explanation of this week:

This is that time of the year when sentences start HUNT! Hunt lose words that HUNT! HUNT! HUNT! they really HUNT! Hunt HUNT! Hunt to Hunt HUNT! Hunt Hunt to other people. Attention span Hunt Hunt HUNT! to about ten seconds as the finishing Hunt are put on the Hunt Hunt Hunt.
seekingferret: A picture (me)
A thing I realized recently... when I was about seven or so and obsessed with the reruns of Adam West Batman on WPIX 11, my parents threw me a Batman birthday party. My grandmother sewed me a Batman costume, which I would regularly put on for the next several years when I wanted to feel awesome. And my mother... in addition to the Batman themed decorations and the cake and whatever else she did for the party, my mother wrote a Riddler-style puzzle hunt where we solved rhyming clues that brought us all over the house to catch the Riddler.

And I just realized that as an adult, I go up to Boston nearly every year to (sometimes dress in costume and) compete in the MIT Mystery Hunt, but Batman (and my mother) is responsible for my first puzzle hunt experience. And I'm pretty grateful for that.


---

Thoughts on recently consumed media:

-Kingsman was a pretty hard no. The problem wasn't gratuitous violence, it was the film's attitude toward the gratuitous violence. I was revolted by the scene in the church, which compromised a major character's morality while trying to have its cake and eat it too by fetishizing the moment.


-The Last Five Years movie was delightful, though my relationship with that musical is so tied up in the people who I've shared it with that I can't really give it any kind of honest review. I loved it because I was going to love it no matter what. Anna Kendrick's "I Can Do Better Than That" was a particular treat, and though I think I've seen "The Schmuel Song" performed better than Jeremy Jordan did, I've never seen it staged better.

The movie struggled at times with staging the more surreal moments in the the play- "The Next Ten Minutes" didn't quite sell the overlap for me, chiefly, but overall I thought it was well shot, but this was a movie that was all about the music, and both Jordan and Kendrick did a very good job with the material, and Kendrick in particularly is obviously a superstar.

And... here's a picture of Every Shapiro in Washington Heights!






-Jupiter Ascending was a lot of fun to watch. I don't think it was as well-crafted or well-plotted as Guardians of the Galaxy, but I admired it a hell of a lot more. The originality of the visual universe felt almost like A New Hope in its hidden depths. I'll tell you what- I would really enjoy a sequel where Jupiter has come into her own as a secret space princess. I liked her a lot in this movie, and she was obviously smart and brave and kind, so it was disappointing that she was thrust into a universe where she defaulted to damsel because there was too much she didn't know for her to possibly make the right choices. I want a movie where Jupiter can wage a subtle war of soft power against Titus and Kalique, and not be overwhelmed by their familiarity with the ground rules. (Having seen the second Matrix film, though, I'm not certain the Wachowskis are the directors to give us that growth.)

In general, I admired the movie for building a universe on a massive scale and then not trying to bore us with all the tedious details. There is so much detail in that movie that passed me by, so much density and volume to the movie, that it was remarkable.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
For the [community profile] invisible_ficathon, I was assigned to write Escape from Zyzzlvaria fic. This requires about ten minutes of background to explain- [personal profile] roga got it last week while I was writing, but you're getting it now.

One of the highlights of my calendar year is the MIT Mystery Hunt, a weekend-long puzzle competition in which teams strive to solve a set of extraordinarily complicated and creative puzzles in order to reveal the hidden location of a coin on MIT campus. The Hunts have gotten more and more elaborate over the years, both in terms of the puzzles and the theatrical stagecraft wrapped around the puzzles and have developed their own language and style. There are certain particular puzzle types that you'll only see at Hunts. One such example is the Chaos puzzle, in which a constructed language invented for the puzzle must be deciphered before the puzzle can be solved.

Another example is the Duck Konundrum, the trademark puzzle of a Hunt veteran named Dan Katz. Duck Konundra consist of long and ridiculous lists of tricky step-by-step procedures that must be followed in order to get an answer. They also involve a live duck. In the second of these puzzles, players had to set up a half dozen board games and then follow a series of complicated steps for manipulating the pieces on the boards. Information on one board was used to drive moves on other boards, so making a single mistake on one of the steps would propagate and screw up results all across the puzzle. One of the board games was Escape from Zyzzlvaria, a board game which did not actually exist, but which the player could deduce enough about from the text of the puzzle to partially recreate in order to solve.

Several years later, Dan Katz was involved in running the Hunt again, and the entire Hunt was themed based on the Escape from Zyzzlvaria board game. The various characters were acted out, the fake board game was actually constructed, and a number of the puzzles helped build out the fictional game even further. [personal profile] jadelennox, my recipient, has been Hunting for at least as long as I have, and asked for the characters of the game to get one more adventure. And if the story could also be a puzzle, so much the better.

I will confirm that the story contains a fairly simple Mystery Hunt style puzzle. The instructions that go with any Hunt-style puzzle are the same: There are no rules of structure, and any resources you want to use you can use- Internet, books, other people, flamethrowers, laser beams, etc... The puzzle should not require you to break the law to solve. And the first aid kit is not a puzzle. Somehow, you will be able to get a short word or phrase out of the puzzle as an answer. I will happily confirm answers if you PM me.

As far as characterization, I didn't have a lot to go on, so I mostly stuck to the characterization guide in the answer key to a puzzle featuring a parody of the Hitchhiker's Guide to Zyzzlvaria, and crammed in Star Trek jokes when those weren't enough.

The result is a very silly story that I am very happy exists. It was strange to write, though. I sketched out a rough outline of the plot, a drawing of the logic grid, and a list of clues that I needed to insert into the story somewhat naturalistically in order to make the puzzle solveable. As I wrote, I crossed off clues as I included them. The resulting narrative was rather on rails, because there were so many particular story moments it needed to hit, but my brain kept trying to drive me off the rails. Many of the clues involved the bridge, but every time my protagonist tried to go to the bridge I decided the story would be better if he went elsewhere instead, so I had to figure out other ways to drop the clues about the bridge. In its sort of linear shaggy dog story format, the piece it most reminds me of is my first If on a winter's night a traveller fic. Though there are huge differences between the pieces in tone and style, they were both written to rather severe structural constraints. It's a good thing to try to do every once in a while, I think.

"Where on the Brass Rat is Captain Blastoid"
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Oh, hey! On the bright side, I'm not on any team so I don't have any qualms about speculating publicly ahead of time on who M&P are. I don't care if my team's brilliant insights are revealed to other teams.

So here's a few thoughts. MP are the initials of Metaphysical Plant. One likely possibility is that M and P don't mean anything at all, they're just names chosen because their initials match the team running the Hunt. And because by not showing the full names Plant gets to fuck with you.

Also, it says Massachusetts Institution of Technology instead of Institvte. M and P are also the initials of Mental Patient, and I'm sure that given the demographics of Hunters, insanity would make a delightful theme for a Hunt.

Also, it's not impossible that M & P mean something as simple as Mysteries and Puzzles.

Or Madame Psychosis! She does work at MIT, per Foster Wallace. Wouldn't an Infinite Jest Hunt be fantastic? Anyone? No, just me, I guess.

Mater and Pater (or Ma and Pa) also come to mind as a longshot possibility, a wry and kind of obvious bit of wordplay. But that could only kick off a time travel-based Hunt, and we've done too many of those lately.
seekingferret: A picture (hunt)
The announcements about this January's MIT Mystery Hunt have gone up in the past week or so, and it's been heartbreaking for me to read them. I've been Hunting since the '06 SPIES hunt and I haven't missed a Mystery Hunt since then. A version of the team that ran the '06 Hunt won last year and will be running the Hunt this year and early indications are that it should bear many of the hallmarks of that beautiful Hunt.

One of my college roommates is getting married that weekend, though, and much as I wish I could do both, I'll be going to the wedding.

If you haven't Hunted, it's an incredible experience. You spend a weekend hyped up on adrenaline, caffeine, and sugar fighting your way through the most beautiful, elegant, perplexing, varied, and torturous puzzles you've ever seen. Crosswords on crack. Sudoku on smack. Jigsaws on jet fuel (um.... I went through a list of drug names that begin with J and that seemed to work). And you spend it with awesome people who are just as dedicated, just as crazy, and just as creative. I've been to 5 Hunts and I've never had a bad experience.

I know people on a number of teams. If you might be interested, I can connect you with someone who can get you into the loop much better than I can this year. Working remotely is definitely feasible, too- if you can't make it to Cambridge on Martin Luther King Weekend, that doesn't mean you can't have a satisfying Mystery Hunt experience.

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