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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.
Mikey Gemengee on January 26th, 2013 06:12 am (UTC)
My First Puzzles
I would love any feedback anyone would like to contribute about the puzzles I authored:

Season Changes; No One Ages
I Left My Stomach in Salt Lake City
A Streetcar Named...

Aside from Season Changes, I don't even know if people forward solved, back solved, or used options. So I'd love to hear anything about these!


- Mike (A first-time constructor hoping to learn more for next time, which hopefully won't be for many years)
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 26th, 2013 06:21 am (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
Codex forward-solved A Streetcar Named... after some false leads. I only saw it after the initial aha had been obtained (correctly) and a bunch of data had been gathered (incorrectly); I found the number of segments / length of country match, exhorted people to fix their data, and went back to being stuck on Loss By Compression. :-)

We ran into the slight hiccup that the website has the front of the car on one end and the puzzle has it on the other end, but after I pointed out that undoubtedly this was the purpose of having the streetcars actually march across the screen we all agreed that any misunderstanding there was entirely our fault.

In the end I find it a reasonable, colorful (literally :-)) puzzle with a good internal confirmation milestone and a clean extraction. These puzzles are the bread and butter of a working hunt-- they glue together all of the big extravagant crazy puzzles and (if necessary) help smooth over the gaps left by the unsolvables. So kudos!
Peasant's Paladinppaladin on January 26th, 2013 02:45 pm (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
I guided the Codex streetcar solve from start to finish. I think we started working on the puzzle Sunday around 7am, and finally solved it about 12 hours later, but we weren't working on it that whole time. I really enjoyed the puzzle, though I think I would have enjoyed it just as much if it had been a 50 character extraction, not a 97 character extraction:).

The puzzle popped up on Sunday when our numbers had started to dwindle. Three of us tore through all the streetcar id'ing, then started to look at pieces per car, total pieces of each streetcar type, etc. These led nowhere, and we lost interest for a while.

Throughout the day, when I was free from other puzzles, I would return to streetcar, stare at it, and drag a fresh face to look at all of our data. In the middle of the day I noticed how irregular the train segments were, and started looking at how many pieces each streetcar was cut into. This fit great for Milan -- 5 pieces, 5 letter city -- but then didn't work at all for other cities. Also, I could not get Milan to spell anything.

Finally, I got Andrew and Alex to both look at the puzzle with me, and Andrew noticed that the train segments corresponded to countries, not cities, which worked perfectly. Then I started checking data carefully, and trying extractions from the front and back of the streetcar and noticed that all the streetcars were backwards (and as Andrew said above, the train ran from RTL). We indexed into the countries and it worked. Still, our id'ing was error prone, so we went through every id again, and checked them until we could get the clue phrase to make sense!

Thanks for the enjoyable and quite fair puzzle. I think we could have solved it much faster, but we had so many open puzzles that it was hard to get another set of eyes on it. As I said, it could have a been a little shorter, but worked quite well as is.
Mikey Gemengee on January 26th, 2013 05:17 pm (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
Thanks both of you for the feedback! It's so great to know that someone solved my puzzle, and it's interesting to hear about the sorts of things that lead you astray (like taking mirror images of the streetcars so they look like they're moving in the correct direction).

We had a lot of discussions about the clue phrase, and a couple of things contributed to the length. First, none of the countries contained the letters F or H (or B, K, Q, or V), so we couldn't use words like THE, OF, WHICH, WITH, FORTY EIGHT, HAWAII, ALASKA, etc. And also, the second half of the clue phrase could have possibly been shorter, but we liked how it was mildly thematic to mention the country names.

Also, I was worried that it would be difficult to piece together the streetcars and determine that the number of pieces was equal to the length of the country. I tried to make sure that several countries' streetcars had every piece show up on the puzzle, and that the rest had almost every piece in the puzzle, and this constraint worked well with a longer clue phrase.

Thanks again for taking the time to write these comments! It's really great to hear about the solving process and to see things from your point of view.
Peasant's Paladinppaladin on January 26th, 2013 07:49 pm (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
Oh, the easiest way to notice that the train segments were different lengths was the USA and Italy trains. Their segments were quite long, and obviously wider than other train types. It was also easy to eyeball which segment they were. Blackpool was similarly useful, as the color of the lights made it easy to eyeball which segment you were looking at.

Biggest pain to cut up: Switzerland! I could not even figure out how many pieces the train was cut into without printing the sheet, or asking someone with photoshop to measure pixels!
PrestemonPrestemon on January 26th, 2013 09:56 am (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
[From my dodgy memory... ]

I came into my team's work on "I Left My Stomach in Salt Lake City" with a mostly-correct aha already in place. They were looking for 2 locations per line (by finding possible integral solutions and trying them on the map), rather than 2 lines per location... Once we realized this wasn't locking things down, and some locations were on two lines, we switched over to looking at intersections. (Non-intersecting but integer solutions might have been an interesting puzzle too).

I started plugging pairs of equations into WolframAlpha simultaneously and it spit out the intersection (I realize now a custom program would have been faster, but I must have been very sleepy and more willing to do repeated easy things than using my brain.)

Then I just started drawing them out on a Google Map, much like the solution one. I assumed they'd make a loop (or line), with the jumps between cuisines happening in the order given in the flavortext, which I don't think was the case. Not that it mattered much, because the same-cuisine letters popped out just fine.


Edited at 2013-01-26 10:05 am (UTC)
Mikey Gemengee on January 26th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
Thanks for your feedback! I find it really interesting how many people looked at them as Diophantine equations as opposed to looking at them in pairs (I'm a math teacher and have taught basic algebra so many times that I guess I'm programmed to see linear equations and put them in pairs).

After writing the puzzle I spent about twenty minutes making a spreadsheet that used Cramer's rule to make sure that there weren't accidentally additional pairs of equations having solutions with integer coordinates. Then I realized that teams could use the same spreadsheet to definitively find the pairs with integer coordinates and ID all of the restaurants really quickly.

In the first incarnation of the puzzle, the equations were created so that they could be separated into four disjoint sets, and each set would only have solutions from one cuisine. This led to two problems. First, one could solve this puzzle without using Salt Lake City at all (by just plotting the integer-valued intersections of each disjoint set of lines on a coordinate plane). And also, our first test solver pointed out that it was inelegant that there were lines that determined only one point, which could trip up solvers. To solve both of these problems, I picked new lines to hit restaurants in multiple cuisines and took away the lines that only hit one restaurant.

In hindsight it would have been much more elegant to have jumps between cuisines in the order given by the flavortext, but I just didn't think of that. I think in the future, one of my own steps in editing will be, "Was there any part of the puzzle added out of pure necessity, and is there any way to make that more elegant?"

Thanks again for taking the time to write this!

And sorry, Motris, for the extra comments on an already long thread. But I'm learning a lot from this feedback, so hopefully it's for the best!
motrismotris on January 26th, 2013 05:48 pm (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
No concerns with more comments here. I enjoy reading the stories of puzzles from both sides too so I'm glad to see some of that now happening.
受け継がれる意志doctorskuld on January 26th, 2013 10:38 am (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
Hey, I worked on I Left My Stomach in Salt Lake City, mostly because I grew up in SLC and was therefore familiar with the geography and the street layout of the city. The puzzle ended up unsolved, mostly because the solutions to each line were, by design, fairly non-unique. This ended up with me having duplicate restaurants for some of the ones that I'd found, as well as some that were possibly borderline correct (at one equation I ended up at a subway shop on 300S, wondering if that was supposed to be italian). I wish that some of the ambiguities could have been cleared up with better QC-ing. I had the right idea for drawing lines between the points on the maps, I was always one restaurant short in each category of a plot, you might say, and in hindsight that was pretty disappointing.
Mikey Gemengee on January 26th, 2013 05:59 pm (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
Thanks for the feedback! I'm sorry that it was a disappointing experience for you.

We had two test solves, one of which looked at them as Diophantine equations as you did. They had a couple of incorrect identifications (which were later admitted to be their own mistakes), but they didn't find any extra restaurants (like the Subway that you found). Since we had two successful test solves, we pushed it through. I guess the lesson here is that if we have two test solves that use somewhat different processes, we might want to have a third. Unfortunately, I think we were running out of time.

Thanks again for taking the time to write this! I'm definitely learning a lot from these writeups!
JennyElfjennyelfenmass on January 27th, 2013 06:47 pm (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
I worked on and solved both Season Changes and Streetcar.
Season Changes, my sister figured out the Simpsons key and when I got back from Spice Girls, I figured out the indexing. So I found that one pretty clean and easy.

I took Streetcar from start to finish in about 2 hours or so with a few extra hands. It was one of the few puzzles I was able to pick up, start, and finish w/out having to put it down and is one of the ones I labeled as "nice and clean". As a result, I liked it. It required only 1 "Aha" for the most part which was a nice change of pace.