I’m on the organizing committee for this pretty cool conference at MIT this week. Any readers of the blog who are in Cambridge on Friday might want to attend the plenary lecture. I hear it’s going to resolve a fundamental enigma that has been puzzling scientists for decades.

The MIT Mystery Hunt ended a little over a week ago — the premise is that a coin is hidden somewhere on campus and teams have to solve a bunch of puzzles to find its location. The prize for winning is writing it the next year. It was the longest hunt on record — 75 hours and 18 minutes if you count from the kickoff event, and 73 if you count from when the servers went live. My team, whose name is the entire text of the book Atlas Shrugged (although we often used the shorter name PART I: NON-CONTRADICTION; CHAPTER I: THE THEME ‘Who is John Galt?’…), managed to emerge victorious. Here’s a footprint outline we were given as part of an event puzzle:

Our team name on a footprint

Our team name on a footprint


And here are some fuzzy snaps of the coin:
The coin, obverse

The coin, obverse


The coin, reverse.  Now we can raise the debt ceiling.

The coin, reverse. Now we can raise the debt ceiling.

The hunt was so long because many of the puzzles were underclued and the team running it, Manic Sages, essentially mis-estimated how hard the Hunt would be (from gameplay and actual puzzles). Naturally there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the internet after this, and a lot of people took the Sages to task. Some of this criticism was a bit unfair, I think. The Sages put on a huge event for more than a thousand people, and much of it was quite fun. There were problems, sure, but let’s not get hyperbolic here.

Of course, hyperbole is par for the course, and Wired ran this piece by Thomas Synder who indulges in some pretty questionable plot extrapolation to conclude that there is a “trajectory” towards longer and longer hunts. For reference, here are the solving times for hunts up to 2010, showing the mysterious trend Snyder flags is more or less fabricated. So basically that line of argument is just hand-wringing. But why the calls for smelling salts?

The crucial line is this : “[w]hat started as an MIT-only event has now become a mainstay on the puzzle calendar.” Puzzle writers and solvers such as Snyder think that MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles should be less… well, MIT. One of the metapuzzles required you to know something about Feynman diagrams. There was a fractal word search. This is not a complaint about puzzles having too many steps, but about them being too nerdy or too inaccessible to those who have a “puzzle calendar.” Of course, those sorts of things are right up the alley of some MIT students. The subtext of this article is that it’s just not “professional” enough.

The Hunt is a free event (for solvers) that costs several thousands of dollars to put on, is much longer than most other puzzle events, and is done entirely by volunteers. In the case of Sages (and my team), many or most of those people are students. The sense of entitlement voiced by Snyder in this article (and by others elsewhere) is palpable. The fact that it’s a mainstay of the “puzzle calendar” is irrelevant — the Mystery Hunt owes its participants a good time, and those participants are still largely drawn from the MIT community, I think. Sure there were moments when I was not having fun, but also moments when I was having a lot of fun solving. There were some great/innovative puzzles in this hunt, and other great/innovative puzzle ideas. I wouldn’t keep going to Mystery Hunt if it was going to be like any other puzzle contest, and this hunt definitely delivered, even if reading some of the solutions breaks my brain.

Just next year, we’ll try to make it shorter, of course.

Robbie made some corrections to his earlier plot:
Time for first team to find the coin

Via Robert Buckingham, a graph of the length of the MIT Mystery Hunt:
Plot of MIT Mystery Hunt Lengths
I always quote 60 hours to shock people about how long it is, but that seems a little extreme.

Mystery Hunt 2008 is over.

This year I had to hunt from Berkeley due to thesis pressures by keeping in touch via AIM and Skype. Staying awake for a long time to work is much harder when nobody else is around to help keep the energy up. But sleeping 3 hours in your own bed is about four times as rejuvenating as sleeping 3 hours on a couch or floor.

Just one observation for now : infinitely ascending chains of cryptic crosswords with interchangeable clues are awesome. But try not to pay attention to them when they start talking to you.

I had this idea a long time ago for a shirt that one could sell to MIT students and alums. I’m sure it would go over well — I’d get one. Maybe I should set up a cafepress thing for it?

I Heart Anne Hunter

T minus 2 hours and twenty-three minutes.

I found these on a post-it note from his book Topology. I took the class in spring 2000, which feels like ages ago. He ended up writing me a recommendation letter for grad school, so I suppose I have him to thank for where I am now.

  • [2/22/00] (on the topological definition of continuity) “All this exists in the never-never land of abstract set theory.”
  • [3/17/00] “History’s dead.”
  • [4/7/00] “If somebody said I was completely normal, I’d hit them.”

I have more quotes somewhere in my notes for the class, but I have no idea where those are. I have tons of juicy quotes in my probability notes, but those have been AWOL for years, more’s the pity.

I spent the morning reading and working in the 1369 Coffeehouse in Central Square. It was like the good old days except that this time I had a laptop. Perhaps it’s just me being wistful and reminiscing, but I find the coffeehouses in Cambridge/Somerville significantly better than the ones in Berkeley. Maybe it’s because the weather makes you appreciate them more.

The music was perfect — Gotan Project, Tosca, and Django Reinhardt. I feel like I’m home.

Things have kicked into high gear for MH2K6. As I’ve remarked before, this is one annual event that reminds me what is possible when you put your mind to it. Pathological? Yes. But also wicked fun.

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