Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 8 and 9

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

Puzzle 8

Way back when I was confronted with Puzzle 3, I thought it was by far the most difficult one we'd seen so far. That was true, in the same way that fractions are by far the hardest math you learn in elementary school. Puzzle 8 was the tensor calculus of the Great American History Puzzle.

This mess of a photo collage came with only one cryptic hint referring to the Smithsonian's Hall of Presidents. A few cursory glances through the Hall's portraits made it pretty obvious that some, but not all, of the squares in the collage came from portraits in the Hall. All of them were clearly presidential--two of the pictures of folded hands near the bottom of the collage belonged to Lincoln--but only the one in the center of the third row from the bottom came from the Hall of Presidents.

At that point, the squares seemed to map most closely to "true" and "false," and the lure of binary was too tough to resist. And, as luck would have it, every letter can be represented by a string of seven binary values, and conversion from ASCII binary to letters to form an eight-letter word seemed so obvious and elegant that I figured that had to be how to solve the puzzle. Assign each square to "1" (if the square's portrait was in the Hall of Presidents) or "0" (if it wasn't), convert each sequence to a letter, and that would be it. Best of all, on first inspection, all of the squares in the first row and none of the squares in the second row seemed to be represented in the Hall, and every uppercase ASCII  string starts with "10". I was convinced: there was no way this solution could be wrong.

Almost as soon as I became convinced, though, cracks started to appear in my solution. There were too many Q's and Y's, and when one of the rows corresponded to the character "]" I abandoned my approach. (But that's totally how I would have designed the puzzle if it were up to me, and it's a really clever approach that I might use if I were do make a puzzle hunt.) I abandoned my approach, and much like in Puzzle 4, I started writing down each piece of pertinent information about each president: order, party, even initials.

Without bothering to identify the portraits that weren't among those in the Hall, I now had a grid of random information about various American presidents. On a whim, I decided that the numbers gave the best chance of pulling out some useful information, with each number possibly corresponding to a letter. I decided to ignore every number after 26 and fill in the blanks later if it was necessary, and I ended up with "LISHOLNSOBPIEH," which is of course nonsense, but looks just a little like "Lincoln's stovepipe hat," which is 1) real and 2) an object that the Smithsonian might have in their collection, in the style of the previous answers. And it was correct!

It turns out I had misidentified three of the photos I thought I had correct, and that I would have needed to look elsewhere than the Hall of Presidents to identify all the pictures. (Both the Lincoln pictures were actually part of the solution, even though only one was in the Hall proper.) This was one of the more frustrating puzzles, simply because it required intense attention to visual detail and a lot of time spent scouring each portrait to find tiny patterns or motifs. And it seemed strange to reference the Hall of Presidents specifically when a significant portion of the solution wasn't able to be found there.

And I still think my own solution was more elegant.

What I learned about American history: quite a lot about once-popular American artists, including the portraitist George P. A. Healy, apparently the most widely renowned painter of American people for a huge chunk of the 19th century. Plus a few fun facts about the presidents themselves; apparently Congress so disliked James Buchanan that they refused to pay for Healy's portrait of him.

Puzzle 9

Next, we were faced with the second in as many puzzles that required examination of pictures, but fortunately Puzzle 9's rebus was much less tedious to decode.

The first row came easily enough: LAMB plus NEST plus ROBE minus N minus MAESTRO gave LLABE.

The rest wasn't so simple, so I consulted my girlfriend Stephanie for help. A couple of hours on Skype gave us the following.

  • Row 2: STARBOARD minus T plus EARTH minus (something) minus (something) minus R. We became convinced the first "something" was a "dart," but that seemed wrong because "DART" didn't show up continuously in the string of letters.
  • Row 3: (something) plus LAMB minus (something) minus B. The first "something" was clearly the Eiffel Tower, but "EIFFELTOWER" seemed a little clunky for a rebus clue. And the second "something" looked like an Islamic flag, but the closest we came to matching it to a real one was the short-lived Republic of the Rif, and nowhere did "RIF" show up in our string.
  • Row 4: ADOBE plus R plus MANGO minus DOBERMAN minus A plus TUBAS minus B, or GOTUAS.
  • Row 5: E plus BABY plus ARMFUL minus F plus KEROSENE minus YARMULKE minus ROSE minus N plus HAT minus A, or EBABEHT. I'm so, so glad that Steph got "ARMFUL" because there was no way I was ever going to get it. At first, we wanted to use "collar" for "kerosene," but we quickly realized there was no way to subtract "yarmulke".
I stared at Row 3 a bit longer, and I was pretty sure "Rif" wasn't right. What if I was being too specific, and it wasn't a particular country, but just "ISLAM"? Then, if I assigned "PARIS" to the first picture, I could subtract "ISLAM" and get "PAR".

I had made no headway on Row 2, so I started to see if I could make any sense of the solutions. Reading them forwards gave nonsense, but reading them backwards gave "THEBABESAUTOGRAP(blank)EBALL". It wasn't too drastic a leap to come up with "The Babe's autographed baseball" as the answer, and it turned out to be correct. (It fit the rebus's title, "Sports and Games," too.) I had back-solved Row 2 as "SABDEH," but being a completionist, I felt compelled to get the entire answer. I knew I needed to subtract "OARARTR" from "SARBOARDEARTH," which meant that the last two images were "OAR" and "ART".

What I learned about American history: nothing from the puzzle itself, but the Babe's autographed baseball is really cool, and I'll be sure to find it next time I'm at the Smithsonian.

Check back for the last two puzzles, and a final post summarizing the hunt and giving my overall impressions.