Puzzalot

Stuff about, you know, puzzles

Health Update: No Go For Star Wars… Yet

So it's been a few weeks since the cavity that was causing a majority of my problems was discovered and taken care of.  Most of my symptoms went away – especially the ones doctors and specialists said showed I was suffering from clinical depression.  But I'm not back to normal.  Not yet.

As a test, I went with some friends to see the latest Bond film.  I figured if I could sit through that without problem, then I would be good to see Star Wars with my daughter (our family won a pair of tickets to an opening day screening).  I went in armed:  ear plugs, Xanax, breathing exercises, and an escape plan.  I ended up not having to use the escape plan, but I did use everything else.  The excitement and thrill of an action movie (yes, SPECTRE did have exciting parts) overloaded my system and activated the flight-or-flight reflex several times.  Very uncomfortable.  So I enjoyed the movie, but the theatrical experience was a constant struggle to stay calm.

The problem is that my adrenaline is being activated by anything the least bit stressful… whether I enjoy the activity or not.  This means I've had to give up things I usually enjoy.  Listening to an audiobook about the son of a serial killer?  Can't do it.  Watching a TV show about a time-traveling alien?  Nope.  Playing with my kids?  Too much.  Taking care of my family and home?  Practically impossible.

I've been taking an "as needed" drug that's been tremendously helpful, especially keeping the night time anxiety down and allowing me to get sleep. It doesn't help with more exciting events, but smooths over general stresses of everyday life.  It's addictive in the long run, so I need to get off of it soon.  Hopefully, I'll find a non-addictive replacement this week and see how it goes.  Anti-anxiety drugs have a that-drug-didn't-work-let's-try-a-different-one-repeat-as-necessary reputation that I'm not looking forward to.

But unless something changes, no Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the theater for me.  It will mark the first time since 1977 that I missed a theatrical showing of a Star Wars movie (my excuse is that I was three at the time).  It may not be as important as getting back the ablity to take care of my family, but it shows just how much my life has changed.  

Yes, this sucks.

But in reading Felicia Day's book and learning about what she had to deal with, it makes me realize how lucky I am.  I was very afraid that I would be heading down the depression road.  Having found out that something physical was causing many of my problems is such a relief and I now have hope that the remaining anxiety can be defeated.  It just going to take a little time.

The First Puzzle Hunt-Style Puzzle!

A little over a year ago, I came across a text that contained a puzzle that I was fairly certain I could definitively say was the very first puzzle hunt ever with the first puzzle hunt-style puzzle. Pretty exciting find for an amateur puzzle hunt historian!

But before I typed up anything, I decided that since it was coming time for another Game Control Summit, maybe I would present this amazing archeological find. I even had a rough outline of how I would present it, teasing the audience with little bits of this puzzle, while recounting the different steps of puzzle hunt history.  I wanted to see if anybody would recognize it and how long it would take. I thought it would be fun and educational.  Hopefully, the audience would too.

Of course, there was no GC Summit in 2015.

It's a good thing, too, because my presentation would have been wrong1.  I just recently – as in a few days ago recently – found a puzzle hunt-style puzzle that pre-dates the one I was going to use by three years.  And because it was at the dawn of the age of using encrypted messages as puzzles, I don't think it can go back any earlier than that.

Cryptography Before Puzzles

Before a certain time period, coded messages were almost exclusively used to communicate secret information – usually military or political – between two parties, hoping to prevent other parties from getting that information.  They were not, generally, a source of entertainment.2

All that changed with Edgar Allan Poe in 1840.

I hadn't known of his interest in cryptography, how he changed it from a necessary part of secret communications to a form of intellectual fun.  He challenged his readers – who at the time looked on cryptographers with a sense of awe and those who could break codes as magicians – to send him their own encoded text and he would decipher it.  This proved an amazingly popular feature and became the source of the modern newspaper cryptogram.

First Printed Cryptogram

The very first cryptogram sent in after Poe's challenge was by one Clarence S. Brigham and was printed on January 15, 1840.  The text of the cryptogram was as follows:

850;?9

O  9?  9  2ad;  as  385  n8338d—  ?†  sod—3  —86a5:  —8x
8537  95:  37od:  o—  h—8shn  3a  sqd?8d—  ?†  —og37
—8x8539  95:  Sod—3  o—  9  ?o—1708xah—  950?9n  ?†
50537  —8x8537  95:   Sod—3  o[[—]]  378  n9338d—  858?†
?†  38537  —8x8537  95:  sod—3  H!!ads3—  nos8 ?† sahd37
sos37  —8x8537  95:  —og37  o—9  Sdho3  ?†  sahd37  95:
80;737  o—  9  !a28dshn  o?!  n8?853  ?†  27an8
o5:otg38—  9  2038  ?95

Poe had encouraged his readers to send in "hieroglyphical writing", not just simple alphabetic ciphers.  He claimed he could break all the codes sent him and backed his claim by actually doing it.  The first one he solved to an interesting riddle (spoilers!):

ENIGMA

I am a word of ten letters. My first, second, seventh and third is useful to farmers; my sixth, seventh, and first is a mischievous animal; my ninth, seventh, and first is the latter’s enemy; my tenth, seventh, and first supports life; my fourth, fifth, seventh and sixth is a fruit; my fourth, fifth and eighth is a powerful implement; my whole indicates a wise man.

As a rule, I don't like riddles.  They end up being a "what have I got in my pocket?" conundrum or basically, guess what the riddler is thinking.  This riddle, though, has several checks built in, so I'd say it's fairer than most.  One or two right guesses, especially about the animals, will set you on your way.  (I'm not sure how the thing useful to farmers could be specific enough to warrant a solution, but I don't have the historical context.)

In the end, this cryptogram solves to a single word, "TEMPERANCE".  That format, an encoded message that solved to a single word, rang a bell.

Self-Confirmation Bias

By coincidence, I've been trying to write a How To Write A BANG Puzzle article for the BANG website3 and in it described how to write a simple BANG puzzle:  "Create a simple substitution cipher, encode a crossword clue, and have the answer to that clue be the answer to the puzzle."

Crazy how similar that description ended up being like Clarence S. Brigham's little clue.  It compares almost exactly the admittedly bare and almost "I'll know it when I see it" example of a puzzle-hunt style puzzle that I presented in separate location and time.

It's hard to argue with myself.4  I am fairly confident that this is the very first publically printed puzzle hunt-style puzzle in history.  His puzzle was at the dawn of the age of hidden messages being used for fun. Of course, it was not intended to be part of a puzzle hunt; it's more similar to the Shinteki Puzzle of the Month.  A version used in an actual hunt would have to wait a few years.

________________

1The subject of my original conjecture for the earliest puzzle hunt puzzle is planned as an post for next week.

Monks in medieval times also played around with encryptions as a form of entertainment, but I could find no details on their workings, apart from that they liked to anagram things a lot.

3 Not that I am anywhere close to being a qualified expert to write such an article; I am hoping such experts will take a look at said page and remove/rewrite/improve it to give better advice to a beginning puzzle writer.

4 Actually, it's all too easy.  I do it all the time.

BATH 5 – A Quick Retrospective

There's a draft sitting in my queue titled, "My Birthday Hunt aka BATH 5 – Part 1".  As of today, it's been two years since I started my attempt at an old-fashioned multi-part detailed write-up of the hunt that was put together for my birthday.  Unfortunately, being a stay-at-home dad of a one year-old (now three) left little time for writing and I only ended up jotting down a few paragraphs.  I regret not having done more.

I had also planned to put together a website with copies of all the puzzles on it.  That never happened either.  I think there are a few puzzles I've yet to see, let alone solve.  Best laid plans and stuff.

I will always be grateful for that day and thankful to everyone who was involved.  It was a tremendous blast, roaming San Francisco and solving unique, fun, crazy puzzles.  But even better… I got to see a lot of friends and family that I only get to see a few times a year, if at all.  That day was defintely special.

Found: One thing wrong with me

I am humbled and truly thankful for all the support and help that my family and I received after writing about the physical and psychological problems I've been having since August.  The good news is, things recently began to change.

So after tons of blood draws, x-rays, poking, prodding, and consultations, I was basically told I have a lot of the symptoms of:

  • Lyme disease
  • Depression
  • Tooth abscess
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency

…And several other issues, without actually having any of them.

One of these negative diagnosis was, it turns out, wrong.  Well, kind of.

I was experiencing some tremendous facial nerve pain that seemed to originate from near a tooth that had a root canal several years ago.  It felt like somebody had connected a nerve just above the tooth to a car battery, occasionally increasing the power to maximum.  ER visit dismissed it as anxiety and set me an appointment with a psychiatrist.  Dentist took an x-ray and saw nothing wrong, but referred me to an endodontist to see if I had a cracked tooth.  Endodontist said there was no cracked tooth and said I should see a neurologist, that it sounded like I had trigeminal neuralgia (facial nerve damage).  He did note that I had a leaky filling (basically, the old filling and the tooth no longer fit tightly) on the tooth next to it and would inform my dentist, who would get back to me.

A week later, I called my dentist and was told to wait, they would call me.  Two weeks after that, I called again and got an appointment to get the leaky filling replaced.  During the procedure, I hear, "Oh, there's some cavity here.  I'll clean that out.  *drill*  Okay, there's some more cavity under that.  *drill*  And even more beneath that… *drill*  Still more cavity *drill*  This stuff goes deep *drill*…"  And so on, until it was all gone.

The cavity hadn't showed up on the x-ray.  It wasn't even where I was feeling the pain.  The dentist assured me, though, that the hidden cavity could be the root cause of many, if not all, of the problems I've been having.

The next day, things began to get better.  Energy began to return and a lot of the symptoms I had been having started fading away.  Today?  The facial pain is gone.  My energy level is slowly returning.  I'm not exhausted all the time.  Several other symptoms have disappeared completely.  I'm still a ways from being "normal" again, but things are looking up.

The bad news?  A few physical symptoms that I had associated with anxiety seem to be sticking around.  However, since the actual anxious feelings have gone away, I'm beginning to wonder: Is there's another hidden culprit at fault?

The Case for (and against) a Lyme Disease Infection

My doctor seems to think that the tests run so far show that I have a clean bill of physical health, despite my symptoms.  So I've ended up playing House, M.D.  I admit, it may be a worthless cause, as the human brain is programmed to look for patterns, even if they don't exist.  Regardless, I try and be scientific about it, but the pattern I keep finding is Lyme disease.

The case for Lyme is pretty simple:  I've visited a few tick-infested areas this summer (Yosemite, Bodega Dunes, Lake Sonoma) and every single one of my symptoms has Lyme disease listed as a possible cause.  My initial symptoms started just days after visiting Lake Sonoma.  The rebuttal is that they're also symptoms of anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and several other issues as well as the fact that Lyme is nowhere near as prevaliant on the West Coast as the East.

The case against is also pretty simple:  No bull's-eye rash.  Limited fever.  Two negative ELISA tests  The rebuttal is that 1 in 4 Lyme sufferers either didn't have or didn't notice a bull's-eye rash, not everyone gets a fever, and the ELISA test is notorious for producing false negatives.  The CDC explains why ELISA false negatives occur, though:  Premature testing and antibiotic interferrance… both of which have happened to me.

I admit I almost want it to be Lyme disease.  In theory, just a course of antibiotics and done, right?  But I really want to be sure, one way or the other. 

Yesterday, I started having increased sensitivity to sound.  Today, I started having tinninitus.  Possible causes (of several) for both?  Lyme disease or depression (yay).  They're also symptoms of a migraine… but a migraine is also a symptom of Lyme disease and depression.

Terrific.

How the hell am I supposed to watch The Force Awakens now???

The BANG is back!

Today is historic!  It's the first BANG in over four years (three if you include the Elevate Tutoring Charity BANG).  Lots of people have thought to put one on, but the plans always seemed to fall by the wayside; Larry Hosken and team have been the first to actually pull it off.

I had always wanted to be part of the return of the BANG and was part of the team working on BANG 34.  Unfortunately, I had to drop out due to my new health problems.  Thankfully, Yar Woo stepped in to take my place, joining Larry, Jan Chong and Paul Rundle as the crazy people who put together BANG 34:  Hill Hunt.  I hope it goes well and that players have fun.

I'm so thrilled!  Hopefully, it leads to a BANG renaissance.  I see there's already a new Ghost Patrol BANG with a scheduled date.  Hopefully, I'll be feeling well enough to play by the time it rolls around.

 

What the hell has happened to me!?

It's not been a good few months for me.

Something has gone terribly wrong with my health, both mentally and physically.  I am so confused and frustrated and angry and lost and helpless.  It's not even close to being funny, regardless of how much I try and joke about this situation.  And it feels like my health is getting worse, and my doctor(s) seem unconcerned by it.

I currently have no energy, it takes me a while to recover from even minimal exercise, muscle pains, joint pains (noisy too!), shaky arms hands, stiff neck, headache/migraine, pain/pressure on nerve under cheekbone, facial twitching, abdominal pain, heart palpatations, chest pain, and more.  Tons of tests have been run on me.  All have come back normal.
 

So they've diagnosed me with somatic symptom disorder, anxiety, and possibly depression.

Somatic symptom disorder is basically a way of saying, "We can't find any cause for your symptoms, and thus an emotional problem must be causing the physical symptoms, and you're worrying too much about it."  It's an unscientific diagnosis and a dangerous one:  There's this story of a woman who died because she had lung cancer but was misdiagnosed as having somatic symptom disorder.  "While I was both anxious and depressed, this was due to the increasingly disabling symptoms that my doctor kept insisting were purely psychological."

I don't know if I have somatic symptom disorder, but it feels like a cop-out.  And defintely not something a family doctor should diagnose.
 

I do have anxiety.  But that's brand new.

From I read, it's rare for someone over 40 to suddenly develop anxiety unless they have depression or a physical ailment that causes anxiety.  I ended up in the ER three times because of chest and arm pains.  All heart tests were fine.  And for the ER, that's enough to send you home.  Saw my primary doctor as soon as I could, but he was no help.  I eventually asked some online doctors, one of which suggested it was all anxiety.  Primary doctor gave me a short test and said I scored pretty high.  Of course I did, I was defintely anxious about the physical symptoms I was having!

I'm defintely open to the idea that anxiety is causing a lot of my symptoms.  Checking out this (exhaustive) list of physical symptoms of anxiety, nearly every symptom I've had is on there, except an elevated tempurature and an extremely bad reaction to antibiotics.  So I'm working on treating my anxiety, with meditation, deep breathing, dark chocolate, and a Xanax if it gets bad.
 

"Many of the anxiety disorders can be traced to childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. Therefore, be suspicious of symptoms that emerge later in life."  Anxiety is also a symptom of some medical conditions:  Hormonal problems, infectious diseases, vitamin/mineral deficiencies (B12 and magnesium in particular), environmental toxins, drug use/withdrawl, tumors, and Wilson's disease.

I don't think I have depression.  Neither did my psychologist.  But when I told my primary doctor that I was having crying episodes similar to psuedobulbar affect (crying uncontrollably without the emotion to cause it), he immediately offered to prescribe me Celexa

I'm mainly writing this to clear my mind, not so much for sympathy.  I do appreciate talking with people, as my close friends and family are all too aware.  I just need to stop thinking about it so much and see if that helps me get better.
 

What do I think I have?  Since my symptoms began a few days after visiting a lake with a large tick poulation, it's possible I have some tick-borne diease.  But that's a whole other can of worms.
 

Expressing disappointment in a puzzle hunt?

At the finish line of BANG 22, both Jonathan and I wandered the crowd of finished solvers and asked for some honest feedback.  Mostly, we got expressions of appreciation and "Awesome job!".  But I know it wasn't a perfect hunt, none ever is.  I'd asked teams what their least favorite part was, but got no real answers.  How can one expect to improve without knowing what could be improved?

I've heard puzzle hunts compared to pizza and that a not-so-great hunt is akin to cold pizza.  Sure, it may be cold, but heck, it's still pizza, right?  The analogy is even more apt if you only get pizza once or twice a year.  To say, "Hey this is cold!" may discourage the pizza maker from making more.  And then there'd be no pizza.  Nobody wants that.

But I know the criticism is out there.  Every team I've played on talks about the good and the bad of a hunt.  And on teams that contain "puzzle snobs" – i.e. experienced players who know what and what doesn't work – the bad can sometimes lead to anger.  In a hunt a while ago, the puzzle required ordering (as many do). Instead of using a natural ordering, however, it went with an arbitrary ordering.  This really pissed off one of my teammates and I think pretty much ruined the hunt for them. 

I've felt that anger, too.  After one of those times, I mentioned all the missteps that had been made in the puzzle hunt to some friends.  One person replied, "Yeah, but… instead of critisizing GC, we should be encouraging so they might run another one.  We've had years and years of experience to hone this art and our expectations.  Pointing out everything that went wrong is no way to say thanks."

It's true, constructive criticism should really only be given when asked for.  But when you are GC and you do want constructive criticism, how do you get it?  And if there were major flaws in a hunt, how can you express that without being discouraging and hurting feelings.  People pour tons of works into their hunts and the players often have no idea what's going on being the scenes.  Sometimes, the "right" idea just doesn't occur to GC.  On several occasions after a hunt I've run, I've thought "This clue could have been so much better if only I'd thought to…"   I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

To say, "You really screwed up" is indeed no way to say thank you.

I've seen some writeup of hunts that generally have a positive tone about their experience, but mention the difficulties in passing, sometimes as if it was the solver's fault, not GC's responsibility.  Maybe that's a good way.  It's sort of passive-agressive in it's methodology, but gets the point across without coming across as negative and/or intentionally trying to hurt feelings.

I think the best way, though, is to run your own hunt.  Make it fun, smooth, and satisfying.  Listen to playtesters, iron out kinks, and don't take shortcuts.  That way potential GCs have a model to look to so that when they decide to run something, they can say, "Let's make it good like that awesome hunt we played in."

Puzzle (Hunts) in Fiction: Elementary

I've seen TV show episodes that use the terms "scavenger hunt", "treasure hunt", "mystery hunt", and even "ARG" in reference to the type of entertainment known as "pervasive games".  However, I had never heard any of them use the phrase "puzzle hunt", even when referring to something that I would consider to be one.

That changed a few nights ago when I watched a new episode of "Elementary", the Sherlock Holmes-in-America CBS show.

In it, an overly-obsessed math genius is participating in what he calls a "puzzle hunt" with a cash prize.  The puzzle hunt in this case consists of solving a math problem that yields GPS coordinates, finding a phone number at the location, and then calling the number to get access to the next math problem.  Does this qualify as a puzzle hunt, though?

I've tried before to nail down a concise definition of what a puzzle hunt is, but my attempts have been found to either be too narrow, or so broad that making a telephone call would qualify.  In general, I find that the solve puzzle to unlock location of next clue / repeat until end of hunt works for me.  "Puzzle" is the vague part in this series:  Does a riddle qualify?  Do math problems (regardless of whether they use palindromic primes)?  Jigsaws?  Entanglements?

All of these, to one degree or another, meet the requirement of testing the solver's ingenuity to solve the problem.  That makes them puzzles.

However, if a hunt consists of all riddles, I don't think of it as a puzzle hunt, but a riddle hunt.  In other words, when a hunt is limited to only a specific type of puzzle, then a better label is "[puzzle type] hunt".  A variety of problem types would necessitate "puzzle" as being the best catch-all term.  What was shown in "Elementary" would be a "math hunt"… though honestly it sounded more like a math-based geocaching ARG. 

A so-far attempted writer myself, I've had occasion thoughts on how to construct story about a murder in a puzzle hunt setting.  None of my ideas, though, have inspired me to commit pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).  It seems that the longer a mystery show is on, the more likely it will contain a hunt, whether it be scavenger, treasure, puzzle, or ARG.  Some are entertaining, but none to date have truly satisfied what I think of a puzzle hunt.  Even this episode, which specifically called its McGuffin a puzzle hunt, fell short.

2013 in Review

Ack!  DASH 6 is tomorrow.  I had meant to do a quick writeup of each of the events I played in last year so I wouldn't forget them.  I apparently, have only done one!  Let's see if instead I can get a quick paragraph in for each one.

DASH 5 – Didn't actually play live.  My team dropped out on me the day before, real life somehow overriding puzzle events (pfui).  I did end up solving the clues with my Thrusday night puzzle group, about 1-2 a night.  Was a lot of fun, maybe even more so since we could take (nearly) all the time we wanted and didn't feel the pressure of the clock.  There's something nice about being able to fully experience a well-written clue and not try to look for ways to short-circuit it… like sipping wine instead of downing it all in one gulp.

Shinteki Decathlon 8 – My "quick" writeup from before kinda got away from me.

Berkeley Mystery Hunt 3 – Our team came in a close second to the League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen. We were actually minutes ahead of LXP – which included incredible crossword champion Tyler Hinman – as we went into the final puzzle… Which turned out to be a crossword. Giving a puzzle like that to Tyler is like give bacon to a dog: Finished in a blink. Our team could only look on with a heavy heart as we watched them defeat HAL 9000 and win the hunt minutes ahead of us.

It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed spending the day hanging out with puzzle friends like Jonathan, Brent, Rich, Eric, Laura, and more. But with a powerhouse team like that, I did not feel like I contributed much. I love the feeling of having a key insight or finding a shortcut to solve a clue, neither of which I really felt during this hunt. Not that I wouldn't play again with the same people… Just need to figure out a way to contribute more.

Palantir Hunt 3 – This one caught me by surprise and made me long for the return of the BANG.  I had skipped the first one, not knowing anything about the producers and didn't even know there was a second.  For the third one, I joined the powerhouse that is the Shinteki version of The Smoking GNU:  Jonathan, Kekoa, Cynthia, and Eric, as well as Laura.  With such a skilled team, I figured I would do a lot of watching of amazing solvers in action.  This was partially true.  For example, on one clue, we did the standard you-work-from-the-top-we'll-start-at-the-bottom method of solving a list of crossword clues.  However, the from-the-top side sub-team had finished the entire list by the time the bottom solvers (including me) got more than four.  I think our team solve time was under five minutes for that one.  

I was able to contribute some key insights on several puzzles and even figure out the technique to solving the meta.  There is something very satisfying about having the "aha" on a clue your team has been stuck on for a while.  We ended up coming in second behind "Juiced", who beat us by just thirteen points.  Still a very fun, very satisfying hunt.  I was figuring it was going to be my favorite for the year… until November.

Escape from the Bank – I was excited to see SCRAP's newest real escape game, having been working on a heist-themed hunt for a while (more on that later).  Bob invited me to join him in this one.  Our records were exact opposites:  He had never escaped from a SCRAP event, while I had always escaped.  One of us was going to have their streak broken.  SCRAP games are always well-produced and fun, and this was no exception.  I always enjoy the variety of clues.  Of the ten main clues, I was worked on two.  First one was a cinch.  Second was a Nikoli puzzle type I'd never tried before; nobody else had either, so I spent too much time trying to figure out the rules and erasing the grid several times.  By the time I solved it, the information was no longer needed.

One drawback to SCRAP's escape games is that they don't tell you if you're done.  We had gotten what we figured was the solution to the meta, but hadn't used all the information.  Turned out, the stuff we didn't use was a mid-step for another part of the clue; we didn't need it.  In the end, we escaped!  I think we were the first to do so, but it was close.

My 40th Birthday Hunt (aka BATH 5) – This really deserves its own post.  Suffice to say, my wife convinced the right people to convince enough people to throw me a Doctor Who-themed 40th birthday hunt under the guise of BATH 5 (or is it vice-versa?).  I was and continue to be very touched and amazed by all the effort that went into this hunt and being able to see such good friends.

E.D.D.I.E. – My wife's co-worker heard about my birthday hunt and asked if I could write something similar to get her husband out of the house for a surprise birthday party.  I agreed.  "What types of puzzles does your husband like?" I asked her.  "Oh, he doesn't do puzzles." was the reply.  So I used some of the heist-themed clues I had been developing and made them much much easier and gave him a two-hour hunt in the greater Sebastopol area.  It ended with a safe-cracking at his home, just in time for his surprise party.  My first paying puzzle gig!

I got a lot of positive feedback at the party.  One conversation with a lady in her 70s was "You should do this for a living!"  I told her I was currently a full-time dad.  "Keep it mind for the future then," she said.  She was by the door as I left.  "Don't forget this!  In the future, it could be what you do.  Don't forget!"

Good way to end the year.