July 16th, 2006

chromatic self


Today was Intern PuzzleDay at Microsoft. I competed in the all-staff Puzzle Safari last week, and our team came in a decidedly mediocre 32nd place (of around 55 teams who actually competed, despite some 80 registrants). It was fun, though, so I didn't feel disappointed; I got to meet cool people and have a lot of fun solving puzzles. Last week's Puzzle Safari was teams of four, given 80 puzzles (in two rounds) worth 5, 10, 20, or 30 points (depending upon whether it was a round 1 puzzle in round 2, a puzzle on the same round it was assigned, an Adventure, or a Metapuzzle, respectively). After both three-hour rounds were over, the team with the highest score from solved puzzles wins. The twist is that every puzzle's solution was a location at Microsoft, and every location had a box with a stamp and an inkpad; to get credit for a puzzle, you had to send someone out with yoru team's one and only logbook (on foot- no vehicles permitted) and go and collect the stamps, so there was a significant physical component to the game, plus a few physical challenge "puzzles" to mix things up a bit.

Puzzle Day had the same general "pile of puzzles: solve them" format, but the mechanics for scoring, rank, and victory were entirely different. I'm not quite sure what the score algorithm was, but it was only for tiebreaking purposes. No stamp boxes this time; puzzle answers were e-mailed to Game Control. Not to say it wasn't physical; there were a few physical challenges, and Endgame was exhausting, but fun. All your score is irrelevant if you solve just one puzzle: the metapuzzle, which uses the solutions to all the other puzzles but can be solved without solving all the other puzzles. That puzzle points to a location in Microsoft. The first team to reach this location wins, and any team that can find the location at all before the deadline is considered to have beaten the course- if not the other teams. Teams that didn't complete the course were ranked by puzzle solve score.

This was Intern Puzzle Day, so the deadline was seven hours. It's a truncated form of a real Puzzle Hunt, with a forty-eight hour deadline. (Seriously. Sleeping is an effective way to lose time.) We finished in Sixth Place- Course Complete, which is a definite accomplishment in a field of 44 teams and only twelve Course Complete. Sixth is our official position, but we (and fifth place) were awarded an Honorary Fourth Place for completing the course less than one minute after the actual 4th-place team. (That made for amusing camera footage- we figured we were in the right neighborhood when I noticed the guy with the video camera, but it took us thirty minutes to actually find the goal. If we'd found it immediately, we would have won, but it was a fair hunt- we hadn't actually solved the Metapuzzle, we just found the right building by solving part of it and began searching it thoroughly, when the rest of the metapuzzle spelled E OF COURTYARD CODE IS "LATIN") so "inside the buliding" was a losing strategy anyway. That's what made endgame exhausting: searching every public area of a four-story building, with the help of two teammates.

The theme for Puzzle Day was King Arthur and the Knights of Puzzlelot, which is why all the puzzle staff were wearing Belegarth-quality gear and the coordinator, the King (whose crown and sword have been stolen- the goal of the Hunt), was dressed sort of regally, except more like King Pimp. This turned out to be a deliberate joke that would refer to a later puzzle, which we would find out about an hour and a half later. But anyway, the coordinators informed us that to show proper respect for the King, whenever someone said "King", we should reply "All hail the king!", with the exception that the word "king" in the concept "all hail the King" doesn't count, lest we induce infinite recursion until our stacks overflow. Any reference to a knight got  "Huzzah!". (This will be relevant later.) Several people made references to last year's pirate-themed Puzzle Day, so "Arrr!" as the wrong response became a running gag.

So we got our puzzle packets and headed off to our pre-reserved conference rooms, and went and started solving puzzles. Most of them were on the difficult side of things- Puzzle Safari was a lot easier, but there were more puzzles to solve. I like both game formats- Puzzle Safari is much more laid-back, but I like the tricky puzzles of Puzzle Day. I'm not sure the two-day Puzzle Hunt would be my thing, though.

I won't go into full detail, of course, but the short form is that we had a blast, and we're proud of our 6th-place finish. But I'll give y'all highlights!

One of the puzzles was a three-state Color by Number- a 37x27 grid of squares with numbers around the perimiter, giving the lengths of contiguous blocks of what color and in what order. Lest this be considered easy, one color is unlisted. That color is known to exist with at least one or more consecuive blocks between blocks of the same color, but blocks of different colors may touch, and there's no information about how long those blocks are. Anyway, Levi (another Connemara-apartment-complex intern, not a pair of pants) solved that one, and it became obvious it was a picture of a pair of chess knights. So the answer we submitted? Remembering the morning's lecture... "HUZZAH HUZZAH" was the answer we gave. We got the response "The rule in orientation doesn't apply to the puzzles. Please try again.", so we thought about it more and, knowing that humans rather than an auto-solver was reading it, submitted "Two knights (tonight?)" as the answer, and got a "Close enough. Your answer is KNIGHTS". (Which we needed, so it would be entered into the metapuzzle, Excalibur.) Talking to the puzzle coordinators after the game, we learned that our original answer gave them a good laugh.

Another puzzle, "Kingdoms", gave confusing names for countries, approximately; we had to figure out what they meant (few of the puzzles had instructions) and that they were all countries, but it went fairly quickly from there. ("Curve, simple" was "Belize": bell, easy. Yes, they were all that much of  a stretch.) Well, each puzzle had a number by it, and using that number as an index into the country name spelled out one more puzzle: "HOTEL SECRETING ORGAN". This is, of course, England. (Or, if you prefer, Inn Gland. However, I am very likely to refer to England as Hotel Secreting Organ for much of the forseeable future.) I have no idea why it struck us all so funny, but it was a huge laugh in the debriefing at the end when it was revealed that a few teams had come to the very wrong answer of "HOTEL SECRET IN GORGON" as the very wrong answer. The woman who invented the puzzle wasn't sure what country that would be, and she didn't really want to know.

One of the physical puzzles involved a very creative use of storage bins. Over 1,200 of them had been used to construct a labyrinth in a parking garage. The maze itself was very easy, of course, but how did that give an answer? Many of the twisty little passages, all alike, would lead right out of the maze. This was one we were given some instructions for, though, as to what the "right" way out was. There were indicators (boards of LEDs) in the maze. If you passed one, ignore it. At any intersection where you can, go straight ahead. At any corner, turn. And at any T, there will always be an indicator straight in front of you- turn right on red, left on green. But that was all the information we had. Fortunately, I had strapped a flashlight to my forehead, so unlike other teams I noticed the letters on the ground the first time. There were three entrances, so Nate and I went through them all, recording the letters we passed- we got three sets of nine letters, apparently gibberish. But Nate lined them up vertically and noticed that every vertical set of three letters was a pair of letters and a single letter. So we took all the single letters, and we got "TREBUCHET". A very clever puzzle, and it was actually the child of one of the puzzle coordinators who invented the original maze! He'd just planned for it to be printed on paper (with color ink for the red/green indicators). But then another puzzle coordinator saw a storeroom full of empty storage bins labeled "for general use" and got the idea...

Other physical challenges, which I didn't take part in, involved a live-action game of not-quite-chess on the concrete tiles in a courtyard; winning teams got the answer, while losing teams got another puzzle that would lead them to the same answer but it took a good half-hour to get it. The more amusing one was "Dragon Drop" (there's a pun in there, yes), which involved catching large water balloons dropped from the fourth story of Building 36, then small water balloons dropped from the fifth story. That was done when Nate and I were out for Labyrinth. We weren't immediately sure why Cosmin was soaking wet when we got back, but we got the full story. This one also featured a team deciding to sabotage other teams by aiming at them more than a few times rather than trying to just make catchable drops. This was declared a Foul, so they were delayed until the three perpetrators took a swim in Lake Bill... literally. It was all caught on camera. There was a great deal of laughter and applause as the footage of them swimming into the murky green water and back was presented to everybody at the debriefing; watching the carp in the lake swim curiously around them trying to figure out what was going on was definitely a high point.

It has been promised that the highlights of the video footage (which will include all that) will be posted to the internal Puzzlehunt web site. I'll let y'all know when it's up on YouTube, something that several of the interns in the room decided they would ensure would happen.

The most entertaining footage came from "The Minstrel", a puzzle entirely related to the history and puzzles of "Sir Mix-A-Lot". But the answer for this one was "CAFETERIA THIRTYSIX". so we called Game Control and they told us that the answer was correct: send at least one teammate to finish the puzzle. This turned out to be a karaoke performance of "Baby Got Back", complete with pimp hat, pimp cape, and large obtrusive "$" bling-pendant. This will also be up on YouTube, especially the intern who rewrote the lyrics to something several orders of magnitude more geeky.

We all got T-shirts for participating. They had a puzzle on the back, of course- it depicted darts in a strange archery board, and they turned out to create valid ASCII code to spell out letters, and we anagrammed them into the answer of "LONGBOW"... but only after having a good laugh at our first wrong answer, "OBLONG W".

"Torches" was the most important puzzle, in the end- every single letter of its answer was highlighted in the Metapuzzle, and it turned out that the answer to that puzzle was required to unlock the sword from the stone and finish the game. The puzzle wasn't really that interesting. The answer was "LATIN". What got another good laugh out of Game Control was our original answer, "NAILT", which we noted was an archaic spelling of "knelt", at which point they responded "a common English word. Try again."

Endgame was a rush, and it's why I'm fatigued. We solved enough of Excalibur, the metapuzzle, to figure out the first part: "COUNT OF MERGED CELLS". Excalibur was a stretch word puzzle: parallel lines of words, but where two adjacent lines had the same letter iin the same position, the cells were merged, and lining things up so the letters met correctly was the only way to figure the puzzle out. There were 31 merged cells, Levi, Nate and me went to building 31 for Endgame after telling game control where we were going- one of the rules was that we should ask for confirmation before heading to a building, mostly so they could have the event ready before we got there. All we got was an "Okay, thank you for keeping us informed", which wasn't hugely encouraging, but the guy with the video camera was a good clue. Of course, "Okay, thank you for keeping us informed" was the same answer they gave to the teams heading for building 30. Also for the teams heading for bullding 33. Nobody tried 32, which just means that when programmers can't count, they either miss one or they really can't count.

The hunt was on! We ran about the buliding like a small squadron of crazed and lost monkeys, burning cell phone minutes as we tried to figure out the rest of the puzzle via cell phone. After about half an hour of running up and down a three-story-plus-two-basement builiding, the remainder of the team figured out enough of the rest of the metapuzzle to send us to the actual right place, for a very close sixth-place finish. (It's been noted that we got Honorary Fourth Place, but the sixth place position really was fair given that it was the cheering of fourth place that told us when we were about twenty feet away on a tree-obscured parallel path, and ran like the Dickens.) There were two members of Game Control there, with The Sword In The stone, held up by a gold (that is to say, shiny yellow plastic) chain and a five-reel lock with letters instead of numbers. So that's when "CODE IS LATIN" came into play; that unlocked the sword, and we got a respectable Sixth Place- Course Complete At 4:38 PM (5hr 38min). That was a good half hour ahead of seventh, and only twenty minutes ahead of first; we could have won the game (and therefore a LEGO chess set, a jigsaw puzzle, and a $25 Barnes And Noble gift certificate for each of us) if we'd been looking in the right place from the start. It was a pseudo-fair result; we didn't solve the metapuzzle until after they'd won. I say "pseudo-fair" because the first team actually was 9th with regard to puzzle count! 2nd place got a special mention for being the only team to solve every puzzle. Unfortunately, they were unable to count. They figured out Building 31, not Building 30, just seconds too late to win the game.

But in conclusion? I had a great deal of fun, and if I accept Microsoft's offer (I was told on Friday that unless I do something willfully and destructively boneheaded in the next four weeks, I am definitely hired and have a career open for the taking), I'll definitely compete in Puzzle Safari and Puzzle Hunt again- and see if I can't do my part to help build the Intern Puzzle Day.

I am exhausted. I haven't run that much for years, if ever- to get to the Labyrinth (up and down a lot of hills), then our futile hunt through all of the very large and vertical Building 31. But it was all worth it. I'm proud of how we placed as a team and how I did personally (I was directly responsible for about five solves, which is above the average you get dividing the number of puzzles by the number of players on the team, but made serious headway, gave good information, and had the right idea on many more), but more importantly, it was fun.
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