Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Recap and Analysis

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and the final puzzle.

As a fan of puzzlehunts, history, and Ken Jennings, this Great American History Puzzle was pretty much custom-made to be something I'd enjoy. As soon as I read about it on Ken Jennings' blog, I bought a copy of Smithsonian magazine and was off to the races, knowing that I was never actually going to win but enjoying the hell out of it anyway.

The toughest puzzle was by far Puzzle 8. Some of the puzzles required serious tricks to figure out an approach but came into focus when you figured out the approach (looking at you, puzzle 4). Others had an obvious approach but a non-trivial implementation to that approach (puzzle 9, for instance). Puzzle 8 managed to combine both a cryptic method of solving and a tough implementation, plus a disappointingly misleading reference to the Hall of Presidents, which was one of the few design flaws in the whole puzzle.

Meanwhile, the easiest puzzle was either Puzzle 5 or Puzzle 6, which were straightforward in both method and execution. Surprisingly, a few people on Twitter described Puzzle 6 as the one they found most difficult, making me wonder how impossible I might have found it if I hadn't done so much origami as a kid. On the other hand, it took a couple hours of concerted effort from me and my girlfriend to solve Puzzle 9, even though some Twitter people described solving it in only a few minutes.

It was great to see so much variety in the puzzle. So many classic puzzle types--riddle, cipher, crossword, logic, rebus, and acrostic--were represented that I felt like I was exercising a whole lot of puzzle skills and learning some great history trivia in the process.

On the other hand, the worst aspect of the puzzle was probably the timing. I'm luck enough to have a "job" (i.e., grad student) that lets me basically set my own hours and devote a little down time in the middle of a day to solving a puzzle. For people who don't have that luxury, the timing might have gone from slightly inconvenient to downright frustrating. On top of that, the decision to award the grand prize to the person who submitted the very first correct answer seemed odd, especially in the light of the five seconds between first and second place.

On the whole, Smithsonian: well done designing a set of puzzles that were both fun to solve and taught me something about history. Hope to see you again next year.

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.

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.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 6 and 7

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

Puzzle 6

Another day, another surprisingly straightforward puzzle. Puzzle 6 was a lovely origami-themed puzzle, the second in a row where we actually has a set of instructions to follow and a clear path to a solution. (Maybe it was Puzzle 4 backlash.) The template was even marked with lines where folds would eventually be required, and it was covered in letters that would eventually spell out a solution, once the folding was complete.

Eight-year-old me had a pretty pronounced origami phase, and though I hadn't seen the term "valley fold" in years, it all came back to me quickly enough. The folds required in this puzzle were extremely simple for a puzzler who had any experience in origami, though it likely would have been significantly more difficult for someone who had never folded before.

There wasn't much strategy to this one, just a series of twenty-six instructions that eventually produced an elephant-shaped figure. One side read "TURNOVER," or actually "T, sideways C, R, sideways Z, O, V, E, R." The other side spelled out "MAMMOTH," the puzzle's solution, rendered as "M, upside-down V, M, upside-down W, O, T, sideways I." The position and orientation of the letters was easily the most clever part of this puzzle--once you'd folded it correctly, there was no ambiguity as to what the answer was. But it would have been exactly impossible to brute-force the solution by looking at the letters beforehand, because what you read in one direction as an I was actually an H in the solution.

What I learned about American history: that we had mammoths in America at all... although, to be fair, the mammoth in question (and in the Smithsonian's collection) was originally from Canada.

Puzzle 7

I was thrilled to see a good old logic puzzle show up, the second puzzle in a row that hearkened back to things I used to geek out over in elementary school. It wasn't exactly the "three adjacent grids of checks and X's" format I used to love, but it used a lot of the same techniques to solve.

The first step in solving it was to decide which four of the six photos we were interested in, and that answer lay in rules 2, 6, and 7. Probably the most clever part of this puzzle was rule 2: since the four photos were taken from the professor's observatory, the photo of Earth was immediately ruled out. (That one actually took a few reads of rule 2 to understand its significance.) Rule 7 then mandated that the photo of the crescent moon was one of the four we did want, and rule 6 ruled out the other photo of the Moon. That left the crescent moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune as the four photos.

Next, the photos had to be ordered. There are 4! = 24 ways to order 4 objects, but fortunately rule 8 eliminated most of them. Because the two gas giants had to be in the middle, the number of possible orders was reduced to four:
  • Moon, Jupiter, Neptune, Mars
  • Moon, Neptune, Jupiter, Mars
  • Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Moon
  • Mars, Neptune, Jupiter, Moon
Rule 6 says that the Moon was labeled with a kappa, and rule 4 says that the first two pictures had consecutive Greek letters. But (the seemingly irrelevant) rule 9 says there was no lambda label, meaning the Moon couldn't be first. And rule 5 specified that the body with a gamma was immediately to the right of Jupiter, so the Moon couldn't be immediately to the right of Jupiter, and therefore Jupiter couldn't be the third body. Therefore, the correct order of the objects was Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Moon.

The next step was to assign letters. Some of them were already determined: kappa for Moon, and gamma for Neptune (as the body to the right of Jupiter). Rule 3 specified that exactly one body was labeled with a capital Greek letter that looked like the English letter that started the body's name. There's no Greek letter that looks like English capital J, but mu for Mars's M works just fine. Going back to rule 4, the body to the right of Mars had to receive the next Greek letter. That meant the order of letters was mu, nu, gamma, kappa.

Finally, there was one more piece of information: the side of the celestial object where the Greek letter was located. Rule 6 said that the Moon's kappa was to its right, and Rule 1 said that the letters alternated position, so the final reconstruction was
  • mu, Mars, Jupiter, nu, gamma, Neptune, crescent moon, kappa
The solution to the puzzle required a puzzle 6-style leap, recognizing that the shape and appearance of objects sometimes matched the shape of letters. Taking all the celestial bodies and Greek letters to look like English letters--and not caring about what the Greek equivalents translated to--gave "MOONrOCK" (where Greek capital gamma looks like an English lowercase r), the solution to this puzzle.

What I learned about American history: nothing! If it seems like the puzzles were getting light on America lessons by this point, I thought so too... and then Puzzle 8 came.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 4 and 5

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, and 3.

Puzzle 4

A riddle, a cipher, and a crossword can all make challenging and enjoyable puzzles. But a scrap of newspaper, completely lacking context, describing a pilot's trek around the world at the dawn of aviation? Now that's a proper treasure hunt clue. I think some puzzlers were put off by the lack of an obvious method for attacking this puzzle, but if there's one thing the puzzle hunt culture has taught me, it's that at least half the challenge--and half the fun--is figuring out what the puzzle wants you to do in the first place.

The first thing that jumps out as you read this clue is the list of very specific locations: Glasgow, Morristown, Ourinhos, and so on. It's obvious--or as close to "obvious" as Puzzle 4 ever comes--that the solution somehow involves these locations. My first instinct was to plot all the locations on a map of the world and see if any obvious pattern emerged. It did not. Next, I wondered whether the latitude and longitude of each was significant, so I started writing down coordinates for each of the places.

I soon ran into a problem, though: some of the cities are so large in area that they span significant fractions of a degree. Where was I supposed to designate as Glasgow's location? The city center? The Google Maps arrow? Fortunately, it didn't take me too long to realize what the obvious commonality was among all the cities: each had an airport. I dutifully started writing down airport coordinates, then it struck me that I should also be writing down anything that might be pertinent: hub airlines, year of founding... and airport codes.

At that point, the puzzle fell into place pretty quickly. The first three airport codes spelled the word "GLAMOROUS," and I knew I was on to something. The entire solution turned out to be "Glamorous Glennis is this password," with the ORD at the end coming from Chicago-O'Hare.

What I learned about American history: a little about Chuck Yeager and the airplane he used to break the sound barrier. Even though it was a bit light on history trivia and complexity, Puzzle 4's novelty made it probably my favorite of the entire hunt.

Puzzle 5

Compared to its predecessor, Puzzle 5 was incredibly straightforward. When you're puzzle-hunting, and you see a crossword puzzle, you solve it! The crossword would have been pretty tough on its own merits--I certainly didn't know who Otto III or Sheena Easton were--but as soon as I gave myself permission to use Google to find answers, it got a lot easier. When a crossword is an end in itself, using the internet is completely missing the point; when it's but a component in a larger puzzle, us crossword solvers can't let our ideals get in the way of the big picture.

The crossword's theme clues spelled out how to solve the puzzle. 17-Across, "The task," became "Decoding each row"; 36-Across, "The O's," became "Represented dots," and 56-Across, "The A's," became "Converted dashes". That's an obvious reference to Morse code (there is always Morse code in puzzle hunts), and once the whole crossword was solved, the only thing left to do was to write down a dash for each A and a dot for each O. Each row represented a letter (except for the sixth row, which was a space), which yielded the solution "Morse Telegraph". That refers to the original telegraph that Samuel Morse attached to his patent application, laying the foundation for the entire telecommunications industry.

What I learned about American history: the telegraph was invented by the same guy who developed Morse code. That's a seriously cool "history of technology" fact that I think might be underappreciated. I certainly didn't know it, and I'm a fan of both history and technology.