Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzle 10 and the Final Puzzle

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

Puzzle 10 and the Final Puzzle

Throughout the Great American History Puzzle, there was a lot of conversation on Twitter at #historypuzzle, but the chatter really heated up in the last few days of the hunt. As puzzles were finished, parts of the final puzzle, a double acrostic, were gradually revealed. But the reveals were structured such that you had no idea what was going on until you solved the first four puzzles, and you couldn't make any real headway until you'd finished all nine. Or so I thought.

Apparently, people had figured out how to solve the double acrostic with only clues A-G and N-P present. It hadn't seriously occurred to me to try to do that, and even though I knew along I wouldn't realistically be winning the Great American History Puzzle, I started working the double acrostic about three hours before the release of the final puzzle. Clue A, "Site of the first major battle of the revolution," was a bit of a trick; the answer was "Breed's Hill" even though the battle is popularly known as Bunker Hill.

"Utter" and "Utter rabble" took a little quality time with a thesaurus (and some guess-and-check with what made sense in the acrostic) to get "out and out" and "riffraff," and "National flower" was easily enough Googled to get "rose". The Grafton, Ohio and Newport, Minnesota clue was actually pretty clever; once you saw the pattern, it was easy to get to Oskaloosa, Kansas. The "Famous last word" was "wrought," which we learned in the flavor text from solving the Morse Telegraph puzzle, while "Former home of one of your treasures" didn't seem to have a clear answer from any flavor text.

"Anagram of a US state" was basically impossible at first--it made sense that the state was Minnesota, but which order to put the letters in was unclear at first (it ended up being "nominates"). "The US Capitol has 850" was another date with Google, which gave the answer "doorways". "Maintenance workers on one of your treasures" was too ambiguous to get at first (the answer was "linemen"), and "Easternmost national park" was yet another Google project to get "Acadia".

From that point, there actually was enough to piece together most of the puzzle. One of the keys was to spell out the word "knowledge," a common motif throughout the larger puzzle. The phrase "diffusion of knowledge" was a particularly important one; Googling that gave the mission statement for the Smithsonian: "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge". Lucky guessing and thematic intuition decoded the rest of the puzzle:

"Years ago, James Smithson's legacy founded an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Borrow two letters from each of all your nine treasures. Increase and diffuse those letters to obtain your final answer, taken from a great American poet."

That was fine and good, but it didn't tell us which two letters. Since it was already well past the time when I would have been able to submit answers, I knew I had probably missed my window to win, and I decided to focus on Puzzle 10 for a bit. From the finished double acrostic, the former home of this treasure was Fort McHenry, so it seemed the answer to Puzzle 10 was likely some variation on the American flag.

Puzzle 10 itself turned out to be another "attention to visual detail" puzzle. The clue "Twenty-nine are missing" plus the conspicuously arranged grid of letters at the bottom implied that the puzzle involved the fifty states somehow, and New York poking its head out at the bottom of the picture was all the impetus needed. Identifying all twenty-one states hidden in the picture was a lot of fun, and the next step was to map them to the grid of letters. The fifty letters corresponded to the fifty states on order of statehood: Hawaii was hidden in the picture, so we needed the fiftieth letter in the grid; Alaska was missing, so we didn't need the forty-ninth, and so on.

Those letters turned out to be a nearly impossible anagram, but given that I knew the solution was twenty-one letters that somehow related to the American flag, "The Star-Spangled Banner" seemed likely and turned out to be correct.

That answer unlocked the rest of the final acrostic, and from there, it was simply a task of plugging in letters to the acrostic clues. But there still wasn't an obvious choice for which two letters to pick from each treasure. I turned back to the discussion at #historypuzzle, where someone had provided the gentle nudge "if you've solved all 26 acrostic clues, the answer should be right there." Having never really solved an acrostic, I had to hit up Google for some inspiration, and apparently, the first letter of every acrostic clue usually spells out a secret message. In this case, the secret message was "Borrow fourth and last letters."

Taking the fourth and last letters from each treasure gave a nonsense string, something we were used to seeing by this point in the puzzle: HDZTMSSHMHNKCTBLSR. "Increase" was an easy clue to use a +1 Caesar cipher and produce IEAUNTTINIOLDUCMTS. Then, it was a "simple" matter of "diffusing" or de-scrambling that to get the final answer.

As luck would have it, the phrase "contain multitudes" is sort of an inside joke I have with a co-worker to describe the sad state of conflicting results and incomplete understanding in our field, and I'm a fan of Whitman, so it was not too tough to arrive at "I contain multitudes," probably the most famous line in his masterwork Leaves of Grass and the answer to the final puzzle.

I sent off an email as fast as I could--which of course ended up being about four hours too late. Still, it was gratifying to see my name on the leaderboard, right at position number 25. And it was a great way to end an incredibly satisfying and engaging puzzle hunt.

Check back for one last post, where I'll recap the whole puzzle and give my opinions and impressions.