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21 January 2013 @ 02:40 pm
Too Big to Solve?  
Not my tagline, but a good description for the Mystery Hunt that just happened. One line of dialogue after last year's Hunt that I led with in my wrap-up was a question of when is too soon for a Hunt to end. I said, in this era of a few competitive teams trying to grow to get over the winning hurdle, constructors aiming bigger was a mistake. The Hunt ending after 36 hours (Midnight Saturday) is fine if that makes the solving experience stretch over the weekend for everyone else. I won't comment generally on this year's effort but it seems a great example to point back to of too much ambition by too many people towards the further militarization of the size of Hunt so that by 2025 the team "The whole of new USA" can go after the coin against "USSReunited" for at least a month. The sense of "puzzle" versus "grindy work" is also a discussion I have every year and I don't choose to repeat myself. I've felt since 2008 that the Mystery Hunt is far from an event I'd regularly attend in person although I'm glad to have finally been onsite to play with Team Luck with whom I've been a "free agent" now for three years.

I had a good solving year as things go relatively, but it was mostly demoralizing personally. I soloed Palmer's Portals, for example, but spent many hours after basically solving 8/10ths with a need to tweak a very small and underconstrained set of things to get from that hard work state to a finished state. At some stage I told the team "I'm going to solve Portals and the Feynman meta and then go sleep" and I met this goal but in many times the expected time when I gave the statement. I led the solve of both Danny Ocean (with zebraboy stating the most necessary last bit to get my work over the cliff) and Richard Feynman (with Jasters). I obviously co-solved lots of the logic puzzles and other puzzles, and gave various finishing help to a range of things too. I think I did this best for "Kid Crossword" once when he had spent a lot of timing mastering the hard steps of a crossword/scrabble puzzle -- and could quite impressively fast rewrite out the set of steps I wanted him to do about the puzzle -- and the follow-up steps were not obvious but I led the killing of the beast. This was too often the feel for these puzzles, and my assassination rate was far lower than I wanted. My Sunday was spent earning 3 puzzle answers by actually going to an event, and then falsely believing the power to buy some answers would let me finish solving the Indiana Jones mini-metas -- where I had already mostly soloed Adventure 2's snakes with 5/8 answers, but then killed myself dead on #1/Ouroboros for the rest of the day for so long solving, as many solvers will say in hindsight, the puzzle that was meant to be in one of a dozen ways and not the puzzle it was. Let me state here as I did for hours with my team, the phrase "I'm not cut out for this" is horrible flavor. It implies both cut this out and, in a different way, also don't cut this out. This makes you want to cut it out, which takes a lot of time, but also to not invest too much time in cutting it out, so as to save the wasted time of doing a task you are being told not to do. Other wordings are far safer, and implied negatives within positives is one of the five worst flavor failure modes in my opinion. Puzzle editing and flavor text is an art and is certainly the biggest variable from year to year and constructing team to constructing team.

So yeah, Mystery Hunt happened. And there were the usual share of overwhelmingly incredible Aha moments. Endgame seemed very fun and I wish all teams could do just that for the weekend or at least a lot more things like that. More of that, and more sleep, would have both been some good choices this year. If only the puzzles solved on schedule.

ETA: And as I added far below around comment #300, as a solver who was both frustrated yet had fun in this Hunt, I do want to thank everyone on Sages for the incredible effort they put in. Making a Mystery Hunt is a gift for all solvers whether it matches expectations or not, and as a mostly thankless job I do want the constructors and editors and software engineers and graphic designers and cooks and phone center workers and everyone else to know I appreciated all you did over the last weekend to give us several days together for puzzling.

Further, as I was asked to write a larger piece elsewhere that has given me personally a lot more attention as the face of the criticism, and as I use the phrase "My team" a lot in general as solving forms this kind of bond, I want to be very clear: since Bombers broke up after 2009 I have been a free agent. I have solved recently with Team Luck but am not a core part of their leadership and these opinions I state are my own. I intend to form my own team next year to go after the coin again, and if you have a problem with what I have said anywhere on the internets, please hate me for it. I believe in my posts I have been offering constructive criticism, but even what I have said is without all the facts of what went on inside Sages so I could easily be speaking from ignorance a lot of the time.

EFTA: Thanks to tablesaw for pointing out this chronologic feature of posts. If you want to see all the additions to this post in time sorted order, go here http://motris.livejournal.com/181790.html?view=flat. We're on page 14 at the moment.
TH: cartmanrpipuzzleguy on January 23rd, 2013 12:56 am (UTC)
As long as we're criticizing team demeanors, I'd advise future Hunt GCs not to respond to a Monday morning plea for confirmation of intermediate data with "You don't know what you're doing" and gales of laughter. It's bad for, you know, morale.
The waking life stitched together in your headdalryaug on January 23rd, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
This was a incident that made me very, very unhappy and really soured my impression of the event.

Edited at 2013-01-23 01:12 am (UTC)
Sin Vraalsin_vraal on January 23rd, 2013 04:58 am (UTC)
That terrible phone call
If I recall Derek's visit, it wasn't too long after this phone call. I have been debating contacting Manic Sages directly about it, but since it is now out in the open, I am choosing to express my feelings here.

The response to our phone call is what put me over the edge. We basically begged HQ to send someone to simply watch us perform the Enigma decoding, which only takes a few minutes, since we got the example code to work but the puzzle code to not work (even failing a full AAA-ZZZ keyword brute-forcing by program). In the spirit of the hunt, I pitched that the person could simply say "you should probably check your work, the puzzle appears to be working as intended" or else note what we were doing wrong and choose to hint mildly, at their discretion.

Instead, in response to the request and a Call to HQ that consisted of the gibberish the puzzle message gave us, we were met simply with a "you CLEARLY don't know what you're doing" and a group of people in the background snickering and laughing in response.

I don't know if that was nervous laughter at the audacity of the response, a knee-jerk response of sleepless, punch-drunk individuals, or actual derision, or stark arrogance that we dare question a super hard meta could possibly have an unintended bug or ambiguity that could be addressed. But it doesn't really matter. That one act showed me and my team that our enjoyment of the Hunt was no longer, if ever, a priority of those individuals and/or the Hunt Team at large (that person was a "supervisor", as the person on the phone had that person call us back after our initial request was explained).

Did I have fun? Yes, I did - whoever(s) came up with your hunt theme and overall concept deserve high praise. Did I tell the hunt organizers who visited that I and my team were having fun? Absolutely; I respect the hell out of the job you (mostly) accomplished on-site. And there were so many amazing things - that laser maze, for instance - that I truly, deeply wish you had designed your Hunt to allow more teams to experience. I estimate, oh, about 20% of the teams got to try that beautiful piece of art (or any of the other Obstacle training), and only one or two got to try the souped up Runaround versions. And I must commend Catherine (and others who visited, please forgive me for not remembering all of your names) for your genuine concern, and your extremely patient phone operators with whom I feel I am nearly on a first-name basis by now (hi, Tanya!!). Most of them ad-libbed zanily with me every night through hundreds of phone confirmations, and I hope/think that small indulgence on their collective part was fun for all of us.

All of these nice things you provided us had offset, in my opinion, the huge flaws that include sheer size and purposely-exaggerated difficulty/lack of puzzle "in" issues Derek and others have cited. But our "death march" as it was labelled on this blog was fueled by that phone call. Those people all but ruined my Hunt experience by deriding my trust in your compassion in light of the literal man-day(s) poured into something that might, just might, have NOT been our fault for not being able to solve.

Thank you.
lunchboylunchboy on January 23rd, 2013 07:04 am (UTC)
Re: That terrible phone call
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the obstacles and heist puzzles will be posted online in some sort of home-solvable version. I only saw the guard puzzle, but that one is certainly doable on paper. Don't know about the rest, obviously.
Re: That terrible phone call - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - cananian on January 24th, 2013 03:37 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 03:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - brokenwndw on January 24th, 2013 04:09 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - lunchboy on January 24th, 2013 05:23 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - brokenwndw on January 24th, 2013 05:32 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - affpuzz on January 24th, 2013 06:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
 Catherinecmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:45 am (UTC)
Re: That terrible phone call
Wait a second... I'm terribly confused about this. When we opened up hints, we obviously got a lot of incoming volume. Anyone and everyone was answering the hint line since keeping that response prompt was important to me.

Like any team, we have our share of... uh... socially awkward people and I'm sorry one of them spoke to you and I honestly wish I knew who it was. I can assure you that whatever you heard in the background was totally unrelated to the call. By Monday morning we were taking hint calls all over HQ and not just in the call room. And with call volume it wasn't like anyone or everyone was ever listening to individual calls.

It may surprise you to note that we kept spirits and moral up during the hunt. We were probably laughing about something unrelated. We really would have never done anything like that - it's very different than the way HQ worked.
devjoedevjoe on January 23rd, 2013 02:59 am (UTC)
And, despite how demoralizing this may have been, we continued asking yes/no questions about the enigma to determine what we were doing wrong. Ultimately, just before the "a team is on the runaround" email went out, we ended up with a response that confirmed we were doing the right thing on the enigma message's first letter (with a detailed question which explained each step of how we got there via each conversion step through the enigma machine) when earlier we had been told that we should not get a U from the enigma decode of that first H.
Derek KismanDerek Kisman on January 23rd, 2013 10:05 am (UTC)
(ugh, it's frustrating that Livejournal isn't accepting my Google ID, and Thomas didn't let my last anonymous post through)

None of us who were at HQ at the time knows what you're talking about, and I certainly can't imagine us erupting in laughter over a hint request. I suspect what happened is your call was being answered directly by someone in HQ (rather than one of our phone center or remote callers) and you heard people in the background laughing at some other event.

BTW, I handled the "detailed question" you're talking about, and it was a confirmation that you were doing the right thing *up to the reflector*, which you were. You were probably mistakenly turning the reflector with the third wheel, though (a mistake I made while fact-checking). The first H does not decode to a U.

I definitely don't appreciate the implication that HQ was doing things in bad faith. We were just as unhappy as you that people were having trouble.
devjoedevjoe on January 23rd, 2013 11:22 am (UTC)
Ah, I see now. We did that because we happened to be doing it that way when we got the test data to work.

During the hunt, when we couldn't get the enigma to work, I suggested swapping the rotors, that there were enough degrees of freedom in the machine that a jerk of a puzzle designer could have made the test data decode in more than one way, and that the right solution might have required not assuming that the rotor which came pre-assembled on the tube might not have been the correct first one. But no, this didn't work.

What the jerk of a puzzle designer actually did was make the test data work correctly whether you rotated the reflector along with the third wheel or kept it stationary. And we made some error when we tried it stationary that kept us from seeing that could work.
(no subject) - Derek Kisman on January 23rd, 2013 01:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - devjoe on January 23rd, 2013 01:50 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - Derek Kisman on January 23rd, 2013 05:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
motrismotris on January 23rd, 2013 02:02 pm (UTC)
I've been sleeping so I failed to approve the comment for awhile (sort of when I woke up and saw hey I have 38 comments here now).

I look like I'm about to die when I'm solving but that doesn't mean my morale is low. I set a new personal record for solving by going 60 straight hours. I was productive over the whole time. I needed to stop and sleep Sunday night in a real bed so I left. And I was back at 10 AM on Monday going after Enigma and Indy and Blue Ox of Rubik. If I looked like I wasn't having fun, it's because this Hunt had only sparse moments of fun. But my morale to compete and solve never flagged.

ETA: Since I use "demoralizing personally" in the entry above, let me say that I do not emotionally like being unable to solve so many puzzles, particularly hard logic puzzles in reasonable time, given my skill at these things. Personal morale is distinct from competitive drive, and that is what you seem to be worried about for the team and that never flagged for us.

Edited at 2013-01-23 02:32 pm (UTC)
Robpurplebob on January 23rd, 2013 10:00 am (UTC)
There is probably a misunderstanding here.

I was taking a lot of Enigma calls. I do not remember saying "You don't know what you're doing". I don't think anyone else would have said that to you either. And the room was not at all listening to the people taking the calls so they could join in in laughter. So what happened is probably an event that was misheard as that.

When a lot of Enigma calls were coming in, the team whose name was the text of Atlas Shrugged was *frantically* guessing puns for the Indy meta, like THEY ARE BAD ADDERS. That is what would cause the room to laugh, not a hint call.

Whatever you heard on the phone was very likely an unfortunate coincidence, and not directed at you, but I apologize for the result anyway. If it was me on the phone, I should have been in a place where I would not have to shout over people laughing at answers coming in.
Jenny Ghahathor on January 23rd, 2013 11:25 am (UTC)
FWIW, Palindrome called in a wrong answer to 11 Herbs & Spices, and when we were received the return call, one of my teammates was explicitly put on speakerphone, asked to repeat the answer, and then everyone in HQ cracked up. I wasn't on the call, so I don't know what exactly happened, but it certainly confused my teammate, and I think that's when we gave up on that puzzle.
Jenny Ghahathor on January 23rd, 2013 06:48 pm (UTC)
And now that I see the answer, I'm glad we did. We were working on the assumption that the line with only two blanks was in some way cluesome, and so started from there, and assumed that there was only a one herb/spice overlap with the following line. Looking at the answer sheet, I see that this was incorrect; we should have put three herbs/spices on the line with only two blanks (well, two herbs, which we had identified, but one of them was supposed to go in twice, unlike any other line, and unrelated to the blanks on the puzzle). I doubt we would have solved it given that particular step.

Edited at 2013-01-23 06:53 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - codeman38 on January 23rd, 2013 07:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
 Catherinecmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:55 am (UTC)
The only time something like this happened was with answers that were deliberately funny or... well... the 26-100 situation. I was in the room the whole time with the exception of little sleep and I can tell you we wouldn't have done something like this.
(no subject) - hahathor on January 24th, 2013 02:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 02:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 03:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - hahathor on January 24th, 2013 12:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Henrytahnan on January 25th, 2013 02:27 am (UTC)
In 2011, a solver on my team was incredibly upset at being told to "stop backsolving", when she was in no way backsolving. As the team captain, I immediately sent email to puzzle@mit.edu saying "One of your people was rude on the phone; my solver is upset; this is unacceptable". And I got an immediate call back from one of the leaders of the hunt, explaining why the person thought she was backsolving, acknowledging that it was nevertheless inappropriate, and apologizing that it happened.

It's too late now, of course, but if this sort of thing happens in the future, I'd really like to encourage people to ask their team captain to contact HQ so that the issue can be handled at once, rather than left to be brought up after the Hunt when no one can be quite sure what happened and it's too late to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Dan KatzDan Katz on January 23rd, 2013 09:54 pm (UTC)
I take responsible for starting the snake pun onslaught. I also called in HE GOT THE MAYAN SHAFT.
Sin Vraalsin_vraal on January 24th, 2013 04:01 am (UTC)
Dear lord, that's so bad, I laughed out loud.
aerionblueaerionblue on January 24th, 2013 05:37 am (UTC)
I was proud of the BAD ADDERS pun, but I'm a little disappointed that we never got around to calling in just "SNAKES SNAKES SNAKES" or "M-F-IN' SNAKES" (both 18 letters!).
Re: BAD ADDERS - aerionblue on January 24th, 2013 05:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: BAD ADDERS - (Anonymous) on January 24th, 2013 11:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on January 23rd, 2013 10:47 pm (UTC)
For the record, those puns were not guesses. They were attempts to amuse the large fraction of our team that was sitting around with nothing to work on.
Cody B.: contemplationcodeman38 on January 23rd, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
Also, double-check after the fact that the answers that you identify as wrong are in fact wrong.

I'm not entirely sure how this incident played out on Sages' end, but there was one puzzle where Codex had managed to extract the answer "PLANAR" and called it in. We got the callback and were told it was wrong, so we spent hours trying to figure out what other ways we might be able to extract an answer. (In what seemed to be another common occurrence during this hunt, there was barely anything in the puzzle to confirm that our extraction process was the intended one, so this seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time.)

As it turned out, those hours were completely wasted, because the answer was in fact "PLANAR". Which we only found out by calling in the same answer a second time.
David Glasserdavidglasser on January 23rd, 2013 05:49 pm (UTC)
In a much more minor note: early in Hunt, I called in a question about the crochet part of Uncharted Territories, and was told that many people had asked the same question but that the puzzle was correct as written. (The mistake was that it told you to do three of the four sides of the outside of the square and then connect immediately back to the start. Given that this was the round that was forming the red diamond, converting it into a weird triangle definitely made the puzzle harder to solve!)

Days later, after solving the puzzle, I discovered that the puzzle had been updated to be correct (asking you to crochet all four sides).

So there was a puzzle error, and people called it in, and it later got fixed. No big deal ... except that as far as I know, this was never announced as errata! Or maybe it was and it got lost in the email problem. Who knows.

To make this constructive criticism rather than whining: I highly suggest that Hunt organizers build a spot for errata into their software, so that it's easy to show all errata (and globally-available hints) on the website rather than relying on email.
motrismotris on January 23rd, 2013 05:53 pm (UTC)
This has certainly existed in the past, if memory serves me right. But that it did not exist this year, particularly given the fallibility of email, is an obvious weakness to address. Thanks for the constructive comment!
(no subject) - noahspuzzlelj on January 23rd, 2013 07:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - hahathor on January 23rd, 2013 09:00 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cananian on January 23rd, 2013 09:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
THANK YOU - temvald on January 23rd, 2013 10:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - hahathor on January 24th, 2013 02:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jadelennox on January 24th, 2013 03:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - devjoe on January 23rd, 2013 11:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - devjoe on January 24th, 2013 12:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cananian on January 24th, 2013 04:00 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dougo on January 24th, 2013 04:36 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 01:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - brokenwndw on January 24th, 2013 02:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dougo on January 24th, 2013 04:33 am (UTC) (Expand)
Adrianywalme on January 23rd, 2013 08:38 pm (UTC)
I want to apologize about Uncharted Territories. I was almost certainly the one who took your call, and I had two people swear up and down to me that the puzzle was fine, only to wake up the next morning to find that an erratum had been emailed out (it may, in fact, have gotten delayed by the outage). I should have checked the puzzle personally, and I didn't. Mea maxima culpa.
same problem - (Anonymous) on January 23rd, 2013 11:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
 Catherinecmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:57 am (UTC)
Things like that have to happen every hunt and I know a couple happened here. People are people and individuals in the call queue make mistakes.
(no subject) - motris on January 24th, 2013 12:59 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 01:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cananian on January 24th, 2013 04:05 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 04:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cananian on January 24th, 2013 04:52 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - brokenwndw on January 24th, 2013 07:52 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jessicala on January 27th, 2013 03:29 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on January 25th, 2013 01:38 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - landofnowhere on January 25th, 2013 04:02 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jedusor on January 26th, 2013 09:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - ztbb on January 26th, 2013 04:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dr_whom on January 24th, 2013 02:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - motris on January 24th, 2013 02:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rlangmit on January 24th, 2013 03:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cananian on January 24th, 2013 04:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
 Catherinecmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:50 am (UTC)
You can see my response below. The laughter was unrelated to the call and was simply happening in the same room.

Our team, like every team, has their share of socially awkward people. I'm really sorry one of them spoke to you on the phone.
Henrytahnan on January 25th, 2013 02:29 am (UTC)
See my comment below (tl;dr: I suggest addressing it immediately during the hunt, not after)