Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 2 and 3

Be sure to start with my account of Puzzle 1 to get caught up!

Puzzle 2

This was the first puzzle in the "main" part of the challenge, a series of nine puzzles that, when solved, each revealed a fragment of the final puzzle. Puzzle 2 was a riddle, a type of puzzle that's often tough for me to solve. That's because (unlike crosswords or ciphers or many other popular types) there's no mechanistic, systematic way to solve them--there are certainly nudges in the right direction, but at some point, you have to rely on an intuitive leap.

From a cursory inspection, it was obvious the solution was a two-word phrase, with the two words gaining some sort of significance in combination that they lacked by themselves. The easiest approach was probably just to identify the entire phrase from the last stanza, but that proved easier said than done. So I read the riddle through a few times, trying to find something to latch onto, and finally had a line resonate with me. The phrase "best friend to half the world," if taken sufficiently idiomatically, could refer to either dogs or diamonds. Mentions of "ice" (slang for diamonds) and "treasure" pointed toward diamonds, but the "king with no sword" clue really sealed the deal.

I turned back to the first part of the riddle, and though I couldn't make sense of the notion of "floating" or the "six paths" story, the idea of a jar once infested by sorrows and pains was an obvious pointer towards "hope". That meant the phrase as a whole was "Hope Diamond," something that made a whole lot of sense as the answer to a Smithsonian-based challenge. More importantly, it set a pattern for the answers to the more difficult puzzles down the road: all the puzzle answers were items in the Smithsonian that had ties, obvious or subtle, to American history.

What I learned about American history: basically the entire history of the Hope Diamond. I had been to the Smithsonian a few months before and seen the Diamond, but I missed all the incredible intrigue in its history. The Order of the Golden Fleece was entirely new to me, and I had no idea that the Diamond exhibited red phosphorescence (not strictly a history fact, but cool science anyway).

Puzzle 3

Oh, Puzzle 3. This one was by far the most difficult in the first two-thirds of the puzzle. Literally everything until Puzzle 8 paled in comparison. Upon opening the puzzle to find an obvious substitution cipher, my spirits sank just a little. I'm terrible at cryptography, and I'm the first to admit it.

But even I found myself thinking "oh, to brute-force a substitution cipher, you start with frequency analysis," and I almost convinced myself I knew what I was talking about. The 3-letter combination "QCS" showed up far more often than it should have from random chance, so I took a shot in the dark and assigned it to "THE". The letter P appearing after an apostrophe clearly mapped to S, "QH" had to be "TO" given that Q mapped to T, and so on. I had to make a few educated guesses (for example, the K in "KP" could either be A or I, and after a little trial and error, I made more sense) but the cryptogram got solved pretty easily, to my great surprise.

The beginning of knowledge, wrote Frank Herbert, is the beginning of something we do not understand. To discover this treasure in the museum's TV collection, remember how broadcasting began in the west, past the great river. Your key is to go just to far, and no farther.

Now came the real head-scratching. I knew that the clue about how broadcasting began referred to the letter K from a summer living in Alton, Illinois: I could get to the great river by walking about a mile, and I was perplexed to hear radio stations whose call signs started with both W and K. (The Frank Herbert quote is also a clue to the letter K, if a bit more obtuse.) The question: what to do with the letter K?

I scoured the Museum of American History's Popular Entertainment collection about a dozen times for something that seemed likely. I was particularly taken with Kermit the Frog for a while--it started with K, so it had to be the correct answer, right? But the answer wasn't Kermit, or Seinfeld's puffy shirt, or any of the dozen '60s lunch boxes in the museum's collection. Nor was the answer "KDKA," the easternmost radio station with a K--- call sign.

I gave up for a moment; this was one of only three puzzles that I had to leave and come back to because I was genuinely stuck. Even the approach seemed wrong: Hope Diamond hadn't needed any a priori knowledge of what was in the museum, and Ken Jennings had told us that we should never need to guess, and each puzzle was designed to tell us the right answer, letter by letter.

While walking through Berkeley later that day, a brilliant idea hit me basically out of nowhere: what if I needed to take "key" more literally? As soon as I got home, I pulled out my key to the cipher, encoded the string "ABCDEFGHIJK"... and got "GLHMJANOPFI" back out, clearly garbage. On the other hand, when I decoded the same string, I got "FONZSJACKET," or "Fonz's jacket," the correct answer. Having never watched an episode of Happy Days, this one was less immediately significant to me (and likely to a lot of my fellow Millennials solving the puzzle), but it's still a pretty cool piece of TV history.

What I learned about American history: entirely accidentally (and red herring-ly) a whole lot about the early history of radio broadcast in the US.