Saturday, August 31, 2013

Day 3, Part 3 - Leaving the Discovery City

Here's what you missed on Day 3 of the Great America Race:

We learned how Columbus's bike share program works. We solved several clues involving statues. I took a completely unnecessary tour of the COSI Museum. Wei-Hwa did an amazing Arnold Schwarzenegger voice impression. Then Dan, Rich and Wei-Hwa all competed for the Mr. Universe title but I couldn't choose between them. I mean, could you? Their poses were all so incredible.

Our next clue was at the Celebration of Life statue and the accompanying riddle indicated we should use four left out somethings.

I started examining the statue and its plaques looking for a reference to some list of things with four missing but Wei-Hwa immediately keyed onto the correct idea of determining the 4 letters (B, G, J and X) that were unused in the plaque's text. Using each letter as a Caesar shift of sections of the ciphertext resulted in the message "FIND YOUR SELF THE UNICORN".

This led us to the Children's Fountain in Battelle Riverfront Park across the bridge where we found some charming sculptures depicting the story of Pickaweekee.

We wanted to find a weakness and a fear that we could anagram together to make a short phrase Jack or a dodger might say. We easily found the unicorn's weakness was taste, but the fear was not as obvious. I found the griffin had a fear of being wrong while Dan discovered the lion had a fear of nothing he could see or hear or smell. I convinced Dan that the lion's fear seemed a little wordy to use in an anagram and so we continued searching nearby. We were stuck here for a bit until Wei-Hwa ignored my argument and managed to combine TASTE and NOTHING to make NOT THE GIANTS. We immediately tried using this phrase to decrypt the Vigenère but received only gibberish. Wei-Hwa then suggested there might have been a mistake with the doubled T's and to try NO THE GIANTS instead. This worked and we were directed to seek the Tomb of Howald. Josh had actually discovered the error in this puzzle and had given us an errata for it which we had overlooked. We like to make things difficult for ourselves.

The Tomb of Howald was located in a cemetery a good distance away so we needed to head back to our van. We didn't park near a bike station so in the interest of saving time, Rich rode all the way back and then drove himself and his bike to meet the rest of us at a bike station. This ended up proving quite convenient as it gave us time to pick up some Jeni's ice cream which we had been informed was a local Columbus institution. I had double-toasted coconut and salty caramel, both of which were delicious. Rich and Dan also had some ice cream but their chosen flavors were much less impressive.

We got a little lost looking for the tomb and first visited an impressive mausoleum a little distance away from the cemetery. It was located down a dirt road and was pretty obviously the wrong place but we still searched the entire grounds nonetheless.

This was completely the wrong place to be but that didn't stop Wei-Hwa from solving the clue that would've been there had this place been a proper location and if it had a clue. But it wasn't and it didn't.
We did make it to the proper cemetery and Dan used his impressive Internet grave-searching abilities to locate the tomb.

The entrance to the tomb had eight squares on it, each of which had been divided into eight triangular sections like slices of pizza. Entering the text from the clue into this pattern directed us to find the year of the Soldiers and Sailors monument.

We used the year as a Vigenère on the next group of text and were told to use the year once again on Clue #11 which was just a single decimal number. Multiplying the number by the year resulted in a phone number which we promptly called.

The recording we reached led us to another tomb where we found our CD and traveling clue buried behind an urn. At this point we were already pretty confident that we were leading the other teams but it was still nice to find all 3 sets of clues. Off to Cincy!

The traveling clue involved songs from the CD and a page with pictures of famous people. Wei-Hwa didn't recognize Paris Hilton and I was both shocked at his lack of pop culture knowledge and a little proud of him. I thought this clue was a lot of fun; probably my favorite of all the traveling clues. Rather than detail its solution, I am presenting it here for any curious reader who would like to try to solve it on their own. We also had to use the puzzle's answer as a Vigenère key but I will spare you that step.

Music files (63MB)

Well, I suppose I should give everyone a chance to solve the puzzle so I'll stop here for now. Hopefully I'll have the final installment of Day 3 posted tomorrow.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Day 3, Part 2 - Exploring the Biggest Small Town in America

Previously on Day 3 of the Great America Race:

Rich took us on a three hour tour of Columbus and its surrounding suburbs. We enjoyed breakfast and a little light interrogation with Ajit and Lise. Josh gave us our first packet of puzzles. We rented some bikes and visited 17 different locations before going to one we were specifically told to in the clue. We then cleverly solved the first puzzle.

The Grande Sappho sculpture we were directed to was no more than 50 feet away.

I'm pretty sure she was flipping us off. Look, I'm no art expert but that's just rude.
Our second clue was composed of a riddle indicating we needed to find some shapes on the sculpture's backside (no wonder she was flipping us off) and use them to create a new version of the pigpen cipher. It also included a code comprised of said shapes.

We searched the sculpture and found the following interesting pattern comprised of intersecting triangles between the years 1887 and 1925. The enclosed sections matched promisingly with the shapes in our ciphertext so we were pretty confident we had the right data.

We struggled a bit on this one because besides the usual ambiguity where a coded symbol can translate to a few different letters, there was also a little ambiguity in how best to assign letters to regions. While we were still trying some possibilities, the other two teams arrived. It seems they also ignored the instructions on the clue and visited multiple wrong locations. Additionally, they had opted not to use the bike system and so they had suffered a much greater time penalty. We silently congratulated ourselves on making at least one right decision and realized we would have a nice advantage in reduced travel times between clues.

Eventually we had an assignment of symbols to letters that would allow the decoded message to start "YOU ARE" and end "HERE" with six letters in between that stubbornly refused to translate to anything other than gibberish. I decided I wanted the message to be "YOU ARE ALREADY HERE" but it was pointed out to me that our letter assignments wouldn't allow that and that six letters weren't enough to make "ALREADY" anyway. Still, we knew from deciphering the Morse given in the next clue (you'll see a picture of it soon... just hold your horses), that there would be some arches involved and looking around, I saw three arches very close to where we were sitting. So I got up and surreptitiously made my way over to check them out so as not to reveal to the other teams my intentions (I did this by putting my hands in my pockets and walking slowly while whistling).

Sure enough, under the arches on the far wall was a tile pattern matching the one from the next clue.

I told you I'd post it. You need to be more patient.
There was text on the tiles and taking the indicated letters spelled "TUTSTUE". Hmm... what could that mean? Is it reference to the ancient Egyptian's word for Tuesday? I was unsure but a little quick Googling revealed that there is a Tuttle Park in Columbus and undoubtedly "STUE" referred to some statue there. The park was about a 20 minute bike ride away which was a little further than I liked but still I hurried back confident that I had discovered the next location.

On my way back, I noticed that the opposite wall also had a tile pattern matching our clue. I was pretty happy with my current reasoning but I figured it wouldn't hurt to check the indicated letter positions on this wall as well. These letters spelled "LIBRARY" which felt a little too on-the-nose to me. But the rest of my team disagreed and so we grabbed our bikes and sped off to the library.

I was trying to be stealthy and so I didn't take any pictures of the arches or the tiles underneath. So you get this picture of a baby chick on a kitten instead. OMG, look at how adorable they are!
The Columbus Metropolitan Library was one of the sites we had visited when trying to solve the first clue and so we were able to make our way there only getting lost twice.

In front of the library was a sculpture of Peter Pan playing a flute which seemed relevant to the "toots are played" line from our clue.

Though the mice pictured in the clue makes me think Josh thought this was the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
We used the dedication on the statue, "For the children of Columbus in memory of George Peabody Munson, aged six", and when aligned with the alphabet, the "x" conveniently lined up with "h". Wei-Hwa was able to decipher "CITY HALL" from the beginning of the ciphertext and while we never quite agreed on the rest, we had enough to proceed to the next location.

When we arrived at City Hall, Dan and Wei-Hwa went to check in their bikes while Rich and I looked around for the quote needed for the next clue. We found it on a plaque on the statue of Christopher Columbus in front of City Hall. We filled the quote into the grid, pulled out the colored letters and slowly deciphered a message leading us to the COSI Museum.

Outside the COSI museum was a neat-looking kinetic sculpture designed to illustrate diffraction. There was also a plaque describing how sunlight is diffracted into rainbow colors and clued additionally by the poem, we used the ROYGBIV color names as a 7-layer Vigenère decryption. This would have been a chore to do by hand but thankfully Rich used his laptop and we had a message in moments. We ended up with the phrase, "GET TO DA CHOPPA" which at first was confusing, but Wei-Hwa helped clarify its meaning by screaming it aloud with his best Austrian accent. If you haven't had a chance to hear his Schwarzenegger impression, try to get him to demonstrate it for you. It's uncanny.

Children fleeing in terror from us was not an uncommon occurrence. Or perhaps they were just responding to the urgency in Wei-Hwa's voice and were making their way to da choppa.
We knew the Arnold quote was from Predator and the infrared image of the hand from the next clue seemed to confirm that angle. But we didn't have a solid location like after solving the last few clues. I wandered into the museum thinking maybe they had some kind of infrared exhibit but didn't find anything promising. (It's a cool museum though; similar to the San Francisco Exploratorium.)

At a loss, we were about to visit a nearby hospital that had a helipad (and then I guess our plan was to sneak or bluff our way onto the roof so we could search the helicopter we were hoping was there?) when Dan announced that he had found reference to an Arnold Schwarzenegger statue in Columbus. It seems one was erected last year in front of the Veterans Memorial to commemorate the annual Arnold Sports Festival that takes place in Columbus. It's located directly across from the COSI Museum so if we had just started walking, it would have been impossible to miss. Using the line-word-letter cipher given (which I've just learned is called the Arnold Cipher, how cool is that?) we got a message leading us to the Celebration of Life statue down the street.

I think everyone needs a little time to process the glory of that last photo so we'll continue with part 3 tomorrow.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 3, Part 1 - Bustown

As evidenced by Wei-Hwa's seven part travel series, "How to Repeatedly Get Lost Along the Way from Pittsburgh to Columbus", yesterday was a long day. (If you're the kind of person who looks at datestamps, you might question my use of the word "yesterday" but that kind of pedantry will serve no useful purpose.) It was a fun day to be sure, filled with some great puzzling, but it was tiring and having arrived at the end location last because of a few (read: many) missteps (read: gross miscalculations), it was also a little deflating. So we didn't stay long; just long enough to chat with Josh and the other teams, find out how some puzzles were supposed to work and silently blame each other for missing the now so obvious clues. We then rallied our spirits, resolved to do much better and left to head straight to our hotel and get some much needed rest.

Or at least that was our intention. After we'd driven most of the way back to Pittsburgh, Rich interrupted our sparkling conversation about puzzles, cemeteries and the various merits of chili, to quietly inquire as to whether we might reach the hotel quicker if he had any idea where it was as opposed to his current strategy of just following whatever car most looked like its driver knew where he was going. I argued that we should give the red Toyota ahead of us just a couple more minutes, but the rest of my team had less faith and so Dan pulled up the hotel on GPS and directed Rich to turn around and drive back to the bar we had left as our hotel was a scant two blocks from there. I sadly waved goodbye to the Toyota and I can't help wondering what grand adventure we would have embarked on had we just stayed on course a little longer. Oh well.

Google's directions (marked in blue) versus my best recollection of the path we actually took (marked in red).
Notice most of Google's directions are actually measured in feet. That Toyota driver must have been drunk.
Or he was trying to lose us.

The start time had been pushed back to 11am but we still woke up semi-early to meet Ajit, a founding member of Blood and Bones and a local Columbusite, along with his wife, Lise, and their two children for breakfast. I thought we were just going to enjoy a friendly meal together, but before I even had a chance to pour syrup on my delicious French toast, Rich revealed his ulterior motive and started grilling his supposed friends for local knowledge and potential clue sites. Under his intense questioning and implied threats, they quickly rattled off a series of likely locations. At the time, their terrified expressions and the way they kept clutching at each other for support upset me and I thought maybe Rich had gone too far, but when later it turned out they had correctly predicted 70% of our clue locations, I realized the wisdom in his approach. It's his ability to make those hard choices that makes him so effective a leader. And some degree of Stockholm Syndrome must have set in because when we said our goodbyes, there were hugs all around and they promised to see him soon.

It was getting close to 11:00 so we made our way to the start location of Dorrian Commons Park where we had a few minutes to talk with other teams before Josh arrived and handed us our first packet consisting of 11 puzzles. The first 9 would be solved at locations relatively close by but Josh suggested that we'd want to drive to the final two locations. He also warned us that Columbus was a little spread out and advised us to make use of the city's bike share program rather than rely on just walking.

Who has two thumbs and is excited to be in Cowtown? That guy.
Not being ones to ignore the advice of GC, our first order of business was to find a nearby bike share location. Dan had installed the app on his phone and was able to locate a station with bikes available a few blocks away. At the station, we were able to check out bikes for $6/day but were required to check them in to a station every 30 minutes or be charged an additional fee. All in all, a pretty cool system and one very convenient for puzzle hunting assuming the clue locations are relatively close to bike stations.

Dan struggles to remove one of the bikes while Wei-Hwa vainly tries to explain the
checkout process to Rich. Sadly, these are problems that would persist through Chicago.
The first clue consisted of a sideways compass rose and a poem that mentioned several easily identifiable locations that seemed to be leading us along the path to an end location.

One of the later locations in the first poem was the topiary hedge garden that Ajit had told us about during breakfast. We decided to short-circuit the beginning of the poem and head straight there. When we arrived, we were treated to a lovely topiary depiction of Georges Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" but nothing that looked like a clue or an indication of where to go next.

I'm glad we saw this since Rich and I would later fail to see the original painting at the Chicago Art Museum.
So we hopped back on our bikes and started visiting earlier locations in the poem: the nearby gatehouse, the library, the statehouse, etc. Somewhere along our travels, we noticed an information map display on which Rich realized most of the poem's locations were shown and labelled with letters. We tried translating the locations to letters in the order presented in the poem but got gibberish. However, we theorized that there would be more than one information display and that the locations would be lettered differently on different displays. So we headed to the first location mentioned in the poem, the corner of North Washington and E. Broad, where we found a two-sided display. Using the side of the display with the compass rose matching the one for our clue, we got a message directing us to a nearby sculpture. Maybe we should have not been so terribly clever and actually tried solving the clue without short-circuiting it.

Notice the sideways compass rose. Tricky, Josh, tricky.
And that's it for part one. I'll post part two tomorrow night (though I'll be pretending it's last week).

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chili 5-Wei

Cincinnati is famous for its chili. We went to Skyline Chili, the most famous place for it. Fortunately we found one that was open until 3am. We had to drive a bit to get there but it was worth it.

This was the sampler, in case we had doubts. A small bowl of chili and oyster crackers. Rich was unable to resist eating the crackers for some reason.

Jonathan and Rich take their first bite. The 5 ingredients in a "5-way chili" are Chili, Spaghetti, Cheese, Beans, and Onions. They went for the optional Jalapeno cheese, as the actual chili is mostly a non-spicy and sort of sweet meat sauce. The cheese is clearly very generous.

This was our whole meal. The plate closest to me is a 5-way, but with a potato instead of spaghetti, and a big dollop of sour cream on top. The plate to the left is a standard 5-way.

My verdict?  I'd definitely eat it again and probably prefer it to the spicy type, but I don't consider Cincinnati Skyline chili the "perfect chili" for me. It's just a bit too watery, and, more importantly, there's too much cinnamon. Reduce the cinnamon and boil off some of the water and it'd be ideal.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The bag-cam

There's been some curiosity, so I thought I'd talk a little bit about the "bag-cam" experiment.  I've uploaded a full day's photos (Day 4) with a little gallery interface I whipped up:

The gallery interface is still slightly clumsy, but hopefully you'll figure it out -- click on thumbnails to "zoom" into a particular time range (using the maps as reference), and eventually view full size images.

(Don't worry, a proper writeup of Days 3, 4, and 5 is still coming.)

More about the camera itself:

It's mounted on a Tom Bihn Co-Pilot, my current favorite puzzle hunt bag. (The search for the perfect puzzle hunt bag is a subject in its own right.) The camera is a Contour+2 action camera. It's tethered to a 7000mAH USB battery pack (which tucks into a pocket of the bag, and also helps me charge my phone as needed).

The idea is that I usually wish I had pictures of a puzzle hunt, but during the game itself taking photos isn't on my mind. This way, the camera can be continuously photographing everything, and I can sort out the images at my leisure.

The Contour is a GoPro competitor, and like the GoPro is mainly used for helmet-cam video of action sports. Video would fill the 32GB SD card in a couple hours, so instead I run it in 1FPS still photo time lapse mode. At medium JPEG quality, each 5MP photo is around 1MB, so that lasts around 9 hours. For longer games I'll have to cut down the photo frequency (or change cards, but the whole point is to avoid requiring any attention during the hunt). Unfortunately the Contour doesn't support >32GB cards. I chose the Contour over the GoPro because it has GPS built-in, which is critical for cross-referencing clue sites and images. The Contour form factor is nicer for this purpose, and I like the user interface better. On the other hand, GoPro cameras can use SDXC cards (64GB+) which would be nice. Both Contour and GoPro are wide angle (170 degree) which is great for capturing a whole scene.

In the end, it worked out okay.

Both Wei-Hwa and I used bag-cam pics (along with conventional phone snapshots) for blogging. There are interesting pictures of things we never thought to explicitly photograph, so that's good. Finding the right picture is definitely the hard part -- I hadn't written the gallery generator I linked above, so we just had a giant directories of JPG files to wade through. Standard photo management systems don't do so well with 20,000 files in a day; tools like Lightroom and Aperture can handle the volume, but don't do anything very smart with GPS data, and aren't especially suited for the kind of timeline browsing that's needed. (On the other hand, I'm no expert; maybe I'm missing something.)

Of course, the pictures often have funny framing, and because of where it lives a lot of the pictures end up being "look at my giant hairy arm" or "check out my teammate's giant fisheye-distorted butt". Still, there are so many pictures that usually some of them are decent.

There was one day (day 2) when having a good way to access photos from the previous day would have been nice! Sadly, it wasn't very realistic to do so in real time, and due to some snafus I ended up wiping the card, so we didn't have the data. Perhaps some day this kind of thing will be useful for in-game reference, but for now I'm focusing on post-game documentation.

Here are a few of my favorite bag-cam shots from Day 4:

Outside Washington Park, Cincinnati

"How could that sundial not be the clue?"

Indianapolis War Memorial

Bag-cam selfie!

More Indianapolis memorials.

Part of the "Historic National Road", Indianapolis.

Puzzled over an inscription near George Washington's statue.

While the others went to solve a clue, I made a quick detour to learn about the weird donut embedded in the wall.
It's called "littlebird"; apparently there's a little bronze bird on top?

They look positively heroic, don't you think?

Atop Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis.

Sadly, despite the label, this vending machine just sells soda.

Millennium Monument, Wrigley Square, Millennium Park, Chicago.
I hope to use the system for upcoming Famine Game and Midnight Madness games, we'll see how it works out there. There are also more interesting products entering this space, like the Memoto.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Day 2, Part 7: Columbus Voyage

The driving clue is amusing.  The CD contains a bunch of unfinished Chuck Norris jokes, and our job is to finish them.  This is a nice and casual puzzle and we stop for dinner while in West Virginia.  Not too soon after dinner, we have enough to get a message:
I can't think of any caption funnier than the actual text here.


We groan because if only we had solved this 20 minutes earlier, we'd have access to the freezer at the gas station.  As it is, we stop at a Walmart and put the sheet of paper into a freezer:
See anything yet?
The cold-sensitive ink activates to give us the message "SEEK IN DORRIANS COMMONS PARK BOX".  Okay, we now know where to go when we arrive in Columbus.

We can't find Dorrians Commons Park on the map, so we settle for the next best thing: Dorrian Commons Park.
The park is about 1000 times bigger than the area covered by this photograph.
We're almost certain that we were supposed to have arrived at this location before sundown.  But now we are looking for a box in the park and it is very dark everywhere.  The park has about 50 electrical outlets in it (must be some sort of Ohio statute) but we didn't bring any houselamps.  After what seems like a long time to search we text Josh our progress, and he volunteers the hint that the box should be emitting light.  We comb the park again, looking for maybe a box in the trees that has blinking LEDs.  We wonder if perhaps such a thing would have been noticed and taken by a passerby.  We wonder if the guy who has been sitting in the park since we arrived might be a plant, to make sure no one steals the clue.  We comb the park again.

Just as we're about to consider maybe asking for another hint, I walk part the front of the park and say out loud... "You know, I think that thing shining on the rock could be considered a box that is emitting light."
Rich yells "get the remote-pincer-picker-up-thing".  Sure enough, there's a sheet of paper wedged inside that box:
Da-da-da-daaaah!  You found the Fairy Slingshot!
And on it is yet another page of clues:
The bottom middle encoding is actually quite cute.
Maybe I'll explain how it works someday.
And a page of rune-looking glyphs that probably is yet another cryptogram followed by a Vigenere cipher.  I don't have any photographs of that page in an unsolved form, so you'll see it at the end of this post.

Having very little idea of where we're supposed to go, we figure it can't hurt to guess that "stately house" refers to the Ohio Statehouse and we drive there.  When circling the block I notice a wall with a pattern similar to Clue 11.
What made it especially noticeable was the fact that
Dan was standing in front of it.
It turns out that all four of these clues refer to things that can be found on the grounds of the Statehouse.  #11 refers to this Veteran's Wall (and very fortunate for us, we found the one of the two that actually decodes to a message).
Clue #12 refers to a watery fountain on the other side:
When they said that this puzzle would get your
feet wet, I didn't think they meant it literally.
Clue #13 refers to two sundials found on the premises:
If I read the sundial correctly,
it's saying that it's night o'clock.
And Clue #14 refers to a stone dedicated to Peace:
It wasn't until the 1940s that someone had the idea
to use a space, instead of a bullet, between every pair of adjacent words.  
This saved a lot of bullets, which contributed greatly to the war effort as the
military definitely had a shortage of bullets.
We did not solve any of this in a clean or methodological fashion (and the puzzles weren't completely free of errors).  But if we had (and the puzzles were error-free), we would have the message: LOOK UPWARD UNTO THE GENTLE SKY FOR THE ONLY KEY after solving all four puzzles.  This would have pointed us to look at a skyscraper across the street:
And I'm guessing "Chase" means "run around looking for clues"?
And noticed that it had a big glowing sign saying KEYBANK.  We would have then put this word and decoded the Vigenere on the runic page.
Later on in the hunt GC would start encoding the Arabic numerals, too.

What *actually* happened is that we decoded the first message to the phrase LOOK UPWBED.  Since there didn't seem to be a radio station named WBED in the area, we just looked up and noticed the Keybank sign.  Jonathan hadn't finished doing the cryptogram yet so we just joked about BANK being the key to the puzzle.  Then the three of us split up and ran around haphazardly around the Statehouse and found bits and pieces of the other puzzles while Jonathan continued working on the runes.  Just as we were about to put all four puzzle answers together, Jonathan proudly proclaims "I solved the Vigenere, the key is KEYBANK!"

In any case, the final message told us to go to a location called the Char Bar:
Parking around there was a different problem.

We went there and met the other teams, and GC, and learned about the intended way to solve puzzles.  A lot of good chatting happened, but since it was past midnight we decided that we needed to get to the hotel and sleep.  It was awfully convenient that our hotel was, coincidentally, only a 5-minute drive away.

It ended up taking 40 minutes to drive to our hotel, but that's a different story that you might hear about later.  Wei-Hwa out.