Indie 500

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I attend the National Puzzlers’ League convention every year and I make an appearance at a fair number of puzzle hunts across the country but I haven’t competed in a crossword tournament in several years. Traditional crosswords are not my favorite puzzle type and my Salieri status as a competitor is established. Still, I was missing the interactions with friends who limit their puzzle event attendance to crossword tournaments so I decided to plan a return trip to Lollapuzzoola for August and a first-time trip to the Indie 500 the first weekend June. The organizers of the tournament — Andy, Angela, Erik, Neville, and Peter who did a marvelous job — asked the participants to withhold revealing comments about the tournament for two weeks in respect of the at-home solvers who has not seen the puzzles. If plan to solve the tournament puzzles in the future and do not want to be spoiled, please read no further.

I planned a weekend visit with Dave Tuller in Maryland and the two of us took the train into D.C. on Saturday morning to join the other crossword solvers at George Washington University. We reached the registration desk early and I spotted Angela, Erik, Peter, and a long-maned Neville setting up. Sam Ezersky was among the early arrivals. I had only known him from Internet excahnges but he is just as charming in person and I wished him well on his new position at the New York Times. Throughout the afternoon I caught up with so many people that I hadn’t seen in years. Brian Cimmet told me more about family life in Syracuse and his project to listen to 100 previously unheard musical cast recordings. Evan Birnholz got down to the city after a choral rehearsal of Carmina Burana. Amy Reynaldo offered some health updates and news about Crosswords with Friends. Tony Orbach compared solving notes and shared some family memories (it’s all I can do not to break into an a cappella rendition of “Try to Remember” when I see Tony). Andrew Ries mused on the challenges of making a living in the puzzle industry. New acquaintance Laura Radloff explained how to charm yourself into the NMAAHC without a reservation. And Ade Koiki weighed in on the question, “Which sport requires the most puzzle-solving ability?”

Time, the theme of this year’s tournament, was present in the themes of  all the puzzles. Angela Halstead’s opener “Before and After”  featured long entries made of a word that could precede TIME and a word that could follow TIME to make phrases, e.g. HAMMERBANDITS. The theme was explained by a tl;dr clue in the southeast and I turned in my completed puzzle without understanding the theme. I figured out what was going on just before receiving the second puzzle, “Jam Session” by Paolo Pasco. The unusually wide grid included bigram rebus squares that compacted terms for time durations (SECOND, MINUTE, DECADE, etc.) into half the required grid squares. I was not tripped by the somewhat obscure fill entry ALIPASHA ({Ottoman ruler also referred to as Aslan}) but I hit a blind crossing in the lower left and, due to a poorly drawn Ripstein mark, turned in puzzle with a careless error. “This Mashup’s for the Byrds” by Tracy Bennett included interpretations of archly altered lyrics to the song “Turn, Turn, Turn”, as in {A time to gather stoners together} for BURNINGMAN. The “pack separator” in fourth position was a Benjamin Button themed puzzle by Erik Agard ft. Allegra Kuney titled “Non-Linear Narratives.” The long down answers were based on phrases that contained the names of animals, but the animal named needed to be replaced with the juvenile term of the animal (or vice-versa) and spelled backwards, so {1940 musical about a sleazy nightclub habitué (hopper)} produced the entry PALOORAGNAK. Once this theme was grokked the rest of the grid was relatively gentle. Neville Fogarty’s capper “In Search of Lost Time” was constructed around a substring transfer theme using ERA. So ANTONIOBANDS ({Music groups featuring the merchant of Venice?}) partnered with SHOERACKTREATMENT ({Therapy for a closet organizer?}).

Chris King and I sat at the same table during the tournament. Chris is a character and his upbeat antics crack me up and set the right tone for a puzzle event. I discovered that Chris and I share an interest in the BBC quiz show Only Connect. This discovery came after Chris and I teamed up with Peter Gordon and Ben Smith for a time-killer game led by Neville, also an OC fan, and based on the Sequences round. Our foursome outscored the ballroom, with Ben earning MVP status by recognizing song clips from musicals broadcast live on FOX. Chris would go on to win the Joon Pahk Award for Worst Handwriting. He accepted the medal with pride, but later picked up his note-taking sheet from the Only Connect game, thrust it in my face, and said in his delightful Carolina drawl, “See, Todd! That’s rea-uh-ble!”

The finalists were announced and the Inside Track threesome comprised Roger Barkan, Katie Hamill, and Dave “He-Wouldn’t-Have-Even-Been-There-If-I-Hadn’t-Come-Sorry-About-That-Fourth-Place-Sam-Ezersky” Tuller. After the finalists were ushered out of the room, constructor Andy Kravis explained the special gimmick of his playoff puzzle: The solvers would start with the down clues only! A hint in the grid gave instructions how to receive the across clues. Tournament assistants provided solvers the across clues when they followed the instructions or when nine minutes elapsed, whichever came first. The gimmick befitted a tournament that celebrates the spirit of the independent crossword community, but it led to problems in execution. The grid hint was a set of long Across entries reading THE ACROSS CLUES / CAN BE FOUND ON THE / BACK OF THE BOARD. Unfortunately, the room set did not allow the solvers to actually reach the back of the board, so the assistants simply handed the clues to the solvers when prompted. On top of this, the playoff grids were smallish printouts that spectators and commentators Brian Cimmet and Jeremy Horwitz had trouble seeing, and the finalists solved with Sharpies making grid errors more of a danger. Andy’s puzzle was pleasant but the gimmick forced the overall clue difficulty to be reined in. So the finals were a bit off the mark but I was very happy to see Katie take top honors.

For the wrap-up dinner I had pub fare with Dave, Katie, Kevin Wald, Dustin Foley, and another new acquaintance Giovanni Pagano. We laughed and drank beer and talked about escape rooms, and NPL inside jokes, and absent friends. Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” was not among the temporal references of the official tournament events, but the sentiment of that song is palpable when a puzzle gathering comes to a close.

DASH 9

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Spoilers for the 2017 DASH puzzle hunt are included in this post.

DASH, which stands for Different Area, Same Hunt, is a walkaround puzzle event held annually in various cities throughout the world. A city participates when volunteers willing handle site management contact the DASH organizers and arrange to receive the puzzle materials, establish a walking route, and so forth. My now employer Puzzah! hosted DASH when it debuted in Denver in 2015 and I joined another group to host DASH last year. I was interested in solving DASH this year but no one else in Denver expressed an interest in hosting so the Mile High City was taken off the rolls. I decided that DASH weekend would be a good excuse for a weekend getaway and I had a friend in Texas who had extended an open invitation for a visit. After checking with some local puzzle-solving friends I registered the team Dine and DASH in Austin.

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About two dozen teams assembled in a market square across the street from the University of Texas campus on the morning of May 6 to learn about the Department of Applied Synergistic Humanities, the name of the DASH 9 hunt given in advance as a thematic teaser. Steve Levy, my host in Texas, is well versed in crosswords and cryptics but didn’t have much experience in hunt-style puzzles. I assured him that he would catch on quickly. We were joined by Andy and Arielle Arizpe, a video game designer and food blogger (Arielle’s knowledge of fine food was part of the inspiration of the team name). Mingling with the other teams I noticed solvers wearing MIT Mystery Hunt t-shirts and carrying clipboards with elaborate code sheets. Packets were distributed and we began with a puzzle that revealed an overall theme of extraterrestrial communication. The symbolic algebra exercise turned out to be a primer on rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock that gave us an answer leading to a new location.

I have criticized DASH in the past for being geared too heavily toward expert solvers and missing an opportunity to spark a puzzle interest in casual solvers. This DASH set was probably the most beginner-friendly I have seen featuring many familiar puzzle types with accessible twists. I was pleased that virtually none of the puzzles incorporated classic letter-coding systems. One puzzle used a variation on ternary but that was it. DASH solvers use the ClueKeeper app for inputting answers, receiving hints, and timekeeping. When I solved DASH two years ago I remember that the ClueKeeper’s audio notifications for hints were incessant and distracting. This time I received no audio notifications, though I later discovered hints were accumulating in our app normally. I’m not sure if the lack of audio notifications was something I did or ClueKeeper did, but I registered the change as an improvement.

The puzzles included a word search variant, Star Battle grids, a chemical compound identification quiz, and some cryptic clues that made Steve happy. Several puzzles involved a collection of polygonal shards with arcane symbols. These were used to translate the alien language and employed clever variations as more and more shards were discovered along the trail. The puzzle we struggled with involved arranging strips of acetate to create a path on a sheet of paper. We carelessly missed a path option and consequently spent twice as long as we needed to. The final puzzle used a Zappar feature in ClueKeeper to produce a spaceship effect. Andy somehow figured out the pattern associated with some colorful objects and, with his instructions, I played a Close Encounters-esque musical message that prevented a military engagement with the alien race. Humanity was saved and we got pizza!

Steve was relieved that the puzzles were approachable and that he was able to make contributions. With Andy’s guidance he solved his first Star Battle puzzle. I’ve known the Arizpes for years but have rarely joined them as puzzle cosolvers, so I was happy for that opportunity. UT Austin was a lovely setting for the hunt with lots of shady spots for solving. We finished the hunt in third place among Austin teams and in the upper half overall. The Texas trip was great fun, but I want DASH to return to Denver next year, even if I need to be the host.

Puzzle Boat 4 / Escape from the Haunted Library

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Foggy Brume of P&A Magazine has launched a Kickstarter to fund creation of the fourth installment in his Puzzle Boat puzzle extravaganza series. Puzzle Boat ganzas generally involve around 100 hunt-style puzzles with associated metas and meta-metas and well suited for teams of five or six puzzlers. The project has met its goal and is estimated to roll out in October. There are many pledge levels, including ones that offer smaller extravaganza sets suitable for smaller solving teams. Check out the site here.

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The P&A site is also hosting a donation-based distribution of Eric Berlin’s pencil-and-paper escape room suite Escape from the Haunted Library. The puzzles are appropriate for younger, novice puzzle solvers. Link to the donation screen on the P&A main page.

 

Puzzle Your Kids / Hatched

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Puzzle Your Kids has been providing innovative, kid-friendly puzzles for a little over a year using a subscription service. PYK creator Eric Berlin has revamped the puzzle site to provide weekly puzzles for free, along with premiums for site supporters. Please enrich the lives of your young friends and loved ones by stimulating their interest in puzzles! Visit the Puzzle Your Kids website

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Tortoiseshell Studio puzzlemaster Nathan Curtis is expanding his online puzzle footprint with a periodical called Hatched. The project is designed to provide an editorial forum for new constructors and create a venue for pencil-and-paper puzzle types not regularly featured in mainstream media. This is a great opportunity for puzzlemakers who are looking for a supportive community in which to create and showcase their wares. Check out Hatched web page for more details on the project and a submission specifications.

AUTOFILL PROJECT: bone-in

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Default: 366022
Default with Spaces: 150961

NOTES:
The Kia Rio has been a handy automotive import for crossword constructors, and the recently introduced Kia Niro (65) is an additional boon. I predict that Kia will next produce an electric vehicle called the Orion.

Last week I met some puzzle room entrepreneurs from Canada. Their main product is virtual reality escape room experiences that they sell to franchisees. I tried a demo of one of their rooms. It was the first time I tried VR and after the fifteen-minute adventure I felt queasy for the rest of the afternoon. I did add Oculus Rift (75) to the database. The entrepreneurs also manage an Archery Tag (72) facility in Ottawa. I wonder if that would make me queasy.

I don’t celebrate the holiday, but I bought some Easter candy (75) today — gourmet jelly beans. I also notice sales on bone-in ham (70), and wondered what other bone-in (60) meats are database worthy. I’ve heard ribeyes and filet mignon described as “bone-in.” Based on length, those would be unlikely entries anyway.

CURRICULUM VITAE: John Ratite’s Interplanetary Palooza

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JOHN RATITE’S INTERPLANETARY PALOOZA
(Trivia)

Players form teams of two and participate in an “Amazing Race”-styled competition that takes place in various fictional planetary systems. Teams pilot spaceships and visit planets where they are given trivia questions. Teams that answer questions correctly receive rewards that help them on the race: fuel, navigation information, weapons that can be used against opponents, etc. Trivia knowledge is the principal skill, though teams can also form alliances and employ strategy to gain an advantage. The main goal in each planetary system is to find a stargate to the next system. The last team to find the stargate in each system is eliminated. The last team to avoid elimination wins the competition.

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Interplanetary Palooza is the third John Ratite trivia game that I organized and presented on  the Grey Labyrinth website. Registration opened on February 2, 2005, and the game started a week later with twenty registered teams. Nine months and over 4,000 posts later, the team of Matt Jones and Trip Payne planted a flag on the final planet and were declared the winners. The thread is preserved on the Grey Labyrinth site, albeit with now broken links to images.

The game was richly detailed with countless inside jokes woven into selected trivia questions, planetary system themes, and overall narrative. Shortly after the game concluded I wrote a lengthy post that covering these fine points; the post is on page 104 of the thread. Looking back at Palooza after many years and focusing on the broad strokes, two things remain notable: the size and the drama. Palooza comprised more man-hours and creative content than any other project of my career. I generated material at an even pace throughout the experience, and didn’t think about the total number of trivia questions and planet descriptions I had written until it was all over. The drama largely involved a player with the screen name LoudmouthLee. Lee performed well in the trivia but less so in the social game due to his arrogance and unusually convenient rationales for knowing the answers to difficult questions. At one point he casually mentioned that his non-playing girlfriend helped him with a question. When other teams observed that this was a violation of the “no outside references” rule, Lee claimed a misunderstanding of the rule and I chose to be merciful. LoudmouthLee was eventually eliminated as a result of a sabotage perpetrated by a team that was out of the running but in a rare “kingmaker” position. Lee proclaimed that the sabotage, while not a violation of the rules, was unsportsmanlike and clearly motivated by personal rather than strategic motives. His comments spurred a heated exchange that included insinuations of cheating and favoritism based on real-life friendships between players. The situation was uncomfortable at the time but became an interesting case study on gameplay morality that I could share at cocktail parties.

The size and drama attracted many non-player spectators to the Interplanetary Palooza thread on Grey Labyrinth. It was the first game thread inducted into the Grey Labyrinth hall of fame.

AUTOFILL PROJECT: super bloom

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Default: 365903
Default with Spaces: 150841

NOTES:
My Xfinity cable service recently replaced its music channels with the Pandora app. I have a Pandora account but I’ve never been able to train the algorithm to play exactly what I want. I created a station a few years ago that was intended to play contemporary Billboard hits. I tried it out last weekend and discovered that it plays songs that were hits when I created the station, and not hits today. The station also has a tendency to go down rabbit holes. After playing a hip-hop song, it decided to play exclusively hip-hop, establishing that passive listeners are not entitled to variety. I did jot down Brother Ali (65) and Dyme Def (60) for the database, but I wish I could have better way to listen to current top-40 music. Any advice from Pandora experts?

California’s wet winter has produced what news stories are calling a super bloom (70) in desert flora. I’m not sure if this is a regularly used term for the phenomenon, or if it will be an ephemeral buzz-term related to climate like “polar vortex” or “snowpocalypse.”

I added the Michael Masterson book title Ready Fire Aim (70). I’m interested to see if the title phrase gains traction as a hyphenated adjective for impulsive decision making. I’ve seen the phrase used in that fashion in recent commentaries about the Trump administration.