Sunday, August 11, 2013

Day 1: Pittsburgh

Good evening race fans!

This morning we met Josh Czarda and the other two teams at Mellon Green, as established.

Steve,  Ravenchase staffer, Josh Czarda, Devon (Rex's daughter), and Rex
In typical Czarda style, he kicked off the hunt with minimal preamble. He explained that today's clues would come in three linear batches, with a total of 17 puzzles or so, with a meta leading to the end location. Two of the batches were near the start location, the third was a couple miles away and we would probably want to use transit or drive or something. He introduced us to the hint system, which operates over SMS. A basic hint costs 30 minutes, scratching the puzzle costs 60 additional minutes (90 minutes total for a scratch).

We also got a backpack with some awesome goodies in it!  We've used some of them but we're super curious where the others will come in handy.

A sextant/sundial/compass type gizmo, very sexy!

Wouldn't be a real hunt without a cryptex.

A flexible grabber thingy.
We also got a little mini loupe magnifier thing, a UV flashlight, and probably some other toys I'm forgetting. Also included in the pack were some basic rules, instructions for the hint system and so on.

Of course the clues were the most exciting thing. Each of the three clue sequences started with something that hinted to a location. After solving all three starter clues, we headed to the one closest to us...

Clues 2A-2F (which we did first)

Yeah, we scribbled on it a bit.
We got off to kind of a slow start. For the first clue ("In a structure once the tallest"), we initially headed to the Gulf Tower, which is the wrong formerly-tallest building. We didn't see anything like a "glowing wheel" there. Eventually we realized the picture was Henry Frick, which clues the Frick Building.
The Frick Building has a really impressive lobby.
We still couldn't find a "glowing wheel" or a "box so golden". Both other teams were already there, and it seemed like they were working on extraction while we wandered around cluelessly. Indeed, they left after a few minutes, giving us the ol' puzzle-hunter nod of triumph as they headed off.

One obvious feature was a big stained glass window. This is what it didn't look like:
"Fortune and her Wheel", illuminated properly
When we got there, the backlighting was off, so we didn't see how it had golden and blue rectangles as a prominent feature. Nor did we know that it was titled "Fortune and her Wheel". Nevertheless, Rich decided to go ahead and try using the 3x11 shape as a transposition for the ciphertext in the clue. Doing that yielded "SEEK FOR PAUL T GRANLUNDS RESURRECTION".

That led us to the site for 2B, which led us to this intriguing statue:
Sorry about the funny angle. Most of these shots come from my "bag cam" which was running throughout.
See that square of concrete in front of the sculpture?  That apparently used to be a plaque, which disappeared sometime after Czarda scouted the location a couple weeks ago. The plaque gave the year of the sculpture. Fortunately it was easy enough to find online (1985 -- Christ emerging from a tetrahedron is such an '80s thing, you know) and we used it to shift the ciphertext to yield "SEEK NEAR THE MAYOR RSC FORE PENNYS FACE". "Mayor RSC" is Richard Caliguiri, a prominent former mayor of Pittsburgh. His statue at the City and County Building (Pittsburgh's city hall) is the site for 2C.

We had more navigation trouble on the way, eventually circling the wrong building several times before correctly landing at our intended street address.

The best bag cam shot I could find, sorry.
Near the good Mayor's likeness was a plaque featuring Abraham Lincoln (PENNY) with a copy of the Gettysburg Address (FORE, sort of). Doing the Beale thing on that plaque's text gave us "SEEK GRANTS HILL" which led us to the location for 2D.

At this point we're neck-and-neck with Rex Miller and his daughter.
A plaque commemorates Grant's Hill, which is some kind of historical thingy. This clue (2D) had a slightly unusual decoding technique where you count the number of letters in each line and use that number in a lookup table (with some ambiguity) to get the answer: TRINITY GRAVE. That led us to the location for 2E, the graveyard at Trinity Church.
This graveyard was artistically tilted. Or maybe that's just my bag.
The clue said a bunch of stuff about someone "Quickly" breaking a leg. It took a whole bunch of wandering this graveyard before Rich (I think) found a gravestone with an associated plaque describing how he died after breaking a leg. The full name, which escapes me, decoded the Vigenere ciphertext to a street address which was the clue site for 2F...

Cell Phone Disco
This was a seriously awesome clue site. It's an art installation called "Cell Phone Disco", and it's a huge panel of LEDs that blink in response to RF. You stand around it and use your cellphone and the lights go wild in fun patterns as your phone's radio spills over them. Czarda says it's really amazing at night and I believe it!  Even during the day it's pretty cool.

There are 2,304 LEDs in the installation. Using it to shift the numbers from the clue sheet yielded a phone number to call, which had a recorded message with the final answer for this wave of puzzles: "I WILL WIN THE". (Or THEE.) Yeah, kind of a funny phrase.

Clues 1A-1D (which we did second)

Having completed wave 2, we embarked on wave 1, which started at Point State Park, which is unsurprisingly located at a point of land. The clue image depicts the layout of Fort Duquesne, a historical fort within the park. The fort is gone, but its outline of its walls is depicted in the park's green. In the center of the outline (this fort was seriously small -- I think I've lived in bigger houses) was a circular plaque thingy.

We were in second place at this point, behind Steve & his wife.
The plaque did not contain the words "Consider Past" (from the clue). However, it did contain two words, "Prison" and "Cadets", which collectively anagram to "Consider Past". Apparently if you look closely at the map on the clue the position of those words is highlighted. CADETSPRISON was the Vigenere key for the clue ciphertext, yielding THREE POINTS BY THE FOUNTAIN IN A GRID OF FIVE BY FIVE. That leads to the location for 1B.

This fountain is actually huge, much bigger than it looks in this photo.
Near the fountain were some plaques that named the "three points" of Point State Park: "Point of Confluence" (rivers coming together), "Point of Conflict" (Revolutionary War battles), and "Point of Renewal" (establishment of a park amid the "Pittsburgh Renaissance"). CONFLUENCE, CONFLICT, and RENEWAL are 25 letters, which fit into the 5x5 grid mentioned in the decoded clue.

This was another somewhat unusual decode. Each of the lines in the clue (CUCINEWARFCF, CUCCWRLEL, CUCINEWARFNO, etc.) was a sequence of letters which defines a path through the 5x5 grid. These paths made letter shapes: UV BACK. We had at this point already realized there was UV writing on the back of the clue sheet, since we'd seen it in daylight...

We spent literally an hour or two trying to figure out what to make of this!  We spent quite some time chasing a red herring in the form of Henry I. Gourley, an obscure mayor of Pittsburgh. Eventually we got a nudge from Czarda. (Turns out the other teams needed hints here as well.)  Here's the logic: O.J. was a spokesman for Hertz; H.I.G. is the Hertz Investment Group; there are several buildings owned by H.I.G. near the park, which feature the Hertz Investment Group's name on their signs. Oi.

This is actually the wrong H.I.G. location, but we had to check them all...
In a courtyard near one of the buildings we finally found the "creepy guy":

Officially "Sidewalk Judge", as clued/confirmed by the gavel on the clue sheet.
The text from the plaque fits perfectly in the boxes on the clue (with the copyright symbol matching). Using the numbers beneath as row-column indexes yields the text PITESBURGH [sic] AGREEMENT SIGN, leading to the location for 1D.

While walking to the location of the historic Pittsburgh Agreement, we found a copy of the sign on the web:

This text matches the boxes on the clue sheet. Indexing with the specified numbers yields YOUR ANSWER IS ELEGANT, so the final solution for wave 1 is ELEGANT.

Clues 3A-3D (which we did third)

The final wave of clues started at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which was a couple miles away. We were able to hail a cab to get there. The initial puzzle (3A) refers to a piece by Christopher Wool:

Lining up the bubbles on the clue sheet with the painting, you can fill them in with letters, and chase the arrows to yield GO TO HALL OF SCULPTURE, which took us to the location for 3B.

The Hall of Sculpture contains this lovely artwork on the ceiling:

"Tongue of the Cherokee", which we couldn't see.
Unfortunately, the Hall of Sculpture was closed. We could see glimpses of the work through the fence, but not enough to solve the puzzle. Fortunately various images of the work are available online (such as the example above). Unfortunately they are all incomplete and some of the squares didn't seem to be in any of the photographs. Nevertheless, we were able to muddle through.

The characters are from the Cherokee alphabet. The Hall of Sculpture included a pronunciation guide, which was fortunately replicated online. Assembling the acrostic in the clue and using the pronunciation key yielded something like NI-U-GI-LI-SE-I-MA-MU-?-TI-O-?-ISA-?-R-Y. From this, Jonathan was somehow, somehow, somehow able to get the word "IMAGINATION". I don't know how and he can't quite explain it.

The other teams struggled quite a bit at this point. Steve and his wife were at the museum when we got there, and Rex and Devon arrived not too long after. In fact we thought Steve's team had already finished the puzzle, otherwise we might have cried uncle sooner. But it took them something like another hour to solve it; this is where we established the lead that carried us into first place. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Using IMAGINATION on the Vigenere ciphertext yields USE THE FIRST 100 WHERE LETTERS START IN RED BY THE BEAST A KING THE FIRST OLD BARNUM BROWN FOUND DEAD. Barnum Brown discovered the first T-Rex skeleton, leading to the location of 3C:

A display in front of the T-Rex includes a red heading and some text. The text fills into the grid on the clue sheet. Green letters anagram to a word, red letters anagram to a word, yellow letters anagram to a word... and the orange letter "D" is borrowed three times by the other words -- once by yellow, twice by red, and not at all by green. (The clue sheet gives some pointers in this direction.)

That yields the words FIND ALICE'S DODGSON. Actually we thought it was FIND DODGSON'S ALICE. We then started a complete wild goose chase based on the fact that some photos of Alice Liddell (the original Alice that inspired Dodgson's Alice in Wonderland) had been loaned to the museum!  Docents seemed confident that we could find it. In fact, I believe that exhibition had already shut down, but we still made our way through a larger part of the Contemporary Art and Impressionism exhibits hunting for these pieces.

We finally got a nudge from Czarda asking us to consider a type of bird, so we headed for the Hall of Birds and eventually found a dodo. Wei-Hwa explained (after the fact) that Charles Dodgson stuttered, and thus pronounced his own name Do-Do-Dodgson, and thus she called him "Do-Do", so that's why the bird is identified with him (and, of course, it appears in his books).

Using the clue sheet numbers in Beale style on the dodo's plaque yielded FIND SENNEDJEM'S TOMB, directing us to the location for 3E.

Sennedjem's tomb is in Egypt. Fortunately, we didn't have to walk that far; there was an exhibit in the museum's Egyptian section about the tomb. I don't have a photo of this because it was super crowded with a tour group so my askew little bag and I never made it that far. The numbers in the clue sheet did another Beale thing with something in the exhibit to yield SEEK IN CATHEDRAL OF LEARNING, which took us to the location for 3F.

The Cathedral of Learning is a skyscraper-sized cathedral-shaped landmark building on the University of Pittsburgh campus adjacent to the museum (a short walk). In addition to an immense, cavernous lobby, it has a large number of "Nationality Rooms". These are (mostly) small classroom type rooms with hugely elaborate decoration in the style of a particular nationality. Sort of a weird Gothic skyscraper Epcot Center type of deal. Many of the rooms had looping recordings discussing the contents of the room.

The clue sheet had writing in a script that was unknown to us. After looking through several rooms (and some Wikipedia pages) we identified it as Armenian.

This is the Indian room, which was not the right place, but for a while we thought it might be.

This is the Armenian room. That's the Armenian alphabet!
The Armenian room had the name of some famous Armenian people, or saints or something, and an Armenian alphabet. But all that text was upper case, and the Armenian text in the clue was lower case, and so in the end we just used Wikipedia and Google Translate and various freeware Armenian keyboard apps to enter the text and translate it. Translated, it yielded "YOUR FINAL ANSWER IS IRON BIRD".

Meta (which we did last)

It got a little pizza grease on it later in the evening.
Actually we started working on the meta from the very beginning. It's a cryptogram (the symbols seem more or less arbitrary). One trick is that the second half is ciphertext, so Jonathan struggled trying to get it to make sense before deciding to focus on the first half and making progress cracking the cryptogram.


The answers from the three stages combine (reordered) to say "I WILL WIN THE ELEGANT IRON BIRD". Using that as a Vigenere key decodes to "WHERE GRASS IS FLOATING ABOVE YOUR HEAD AND LETTERS PNC LAFAYATTE HAS A WORD TO SET THE CRYPTEX FREE".

This was a little mysterious to us!  At first we thought PNC was a reference to PNC Park, where the Pirates play, and we actually boarded a bus for that destination. While riding the bus, Googling eventually turned up the fact that PNC Bank's headquarters building has a huge living wall on the exterior of the skyscraper, which seemed like a great match for "grass floating above your head". So we got off the bus at an appropriate point and trekked into downtown (hoping to catch a cab, but failing).

Eventually we ended up at the PNC headquarters building:

Nearby was a plaque about Lafayette:

The cryptex used 5-letter words. We tried a couple obvious words, like GUEST and HOTEL, with no luck. After some bumbling around, we tried less obvious 5-letter words on that page, and finally KNOWN turned out to work. Yay!  Inside the cryptex was this slip of paper.

This rebus solved to directions to the end location, ending the day.

At the end, we arrived at the end about 30 minutes before the next team. We're not sure how many hints everyone took, or if our nudges would get counted as formal hints, but we think we're doing pretty well so far. Who knows what tomorrow brings!


  1. When will we learn more about this Bag Cam?

    1. It's a Contour+2, with a mount VHB'd to my bag, set to take still pictures at 1 PPS. I have a USB battery pack in my bag which keeps the camera running, and which I also use to top off my phone as needed.

      Sadly bag-cam may be out of service today, since I accidentally corrupted the SD card last night (unplugging it in the middle of a bulk deletion) and now the camera won't boot with it and I don't have an SD card reader. We'll sort it out by tomorrow.

      The real issue with bag-cam is I don't have a good photo management system with me. ChromeOS's file manager isn't really cutting it for navigating 20,000+ photos; binary-search back-and-forth is a pain when it takes a couple seconds to load any given photo. Also, as you can see, I could really use a photo editor with rotation (and ideally auto leveling).

      If there's interest, we could do a "gear" post where all of us post about the stuff we're bringing (bags, electronics, etc).

    2. Is the camera facing backwards? Sideways?

      A gear post could be interesting.

    3. The bag is a messenger style bag. The camera is affixed to the side, facing forward. Assuming we do a gear post, I'll take pictures.

  2. Really enjoyed this! Well done, all of you, and thanks for writing it up in so much detail. Looking forward to continuing to enjoy the race vicariously through you!