30 January 2009

Some exciting news. First off probably everyone still reading this blog already knows, but Malia and I got engaged last month. Second, I got an NSF yesterday, so we'll be moving to NYC where I'll be at Columbia. As Malia said, "Now you're all grown up! A month ago you were just a grad student, now you're engaged and employed."

27 January 2009

Here's what Nicholson Baker had to say about Updike in 1991:
With Barthelme gone I suddenly got a glimpse of how disassembled and undirected and simply bereft I would feel if I were to learn suddenly through the Associated Press of Updike's death. All I wanted, all I counted on, was Updike's immortality: his open-ended stream of books, reviews, even poems, and especially responses to pert queries from Mademoiselle and The New York Times Book Review. I thought I remembered him saying recently in Esquire, in response to a survey question about popular fiction, that "in college I read what they told me and was much the better for it." I wanted more of those monocellular living appearances. More awards-acceptance speeches! He was, I felt, the model of the twentieth-cenury American man of letters: for him to die would be for my generation's personal connection with literature to die, and for us all to be confronted at last with the terrifying unmediated enormity of the cast-concrete university library, whose antitheft gates go click-click-click-click as we leave, dry laughter at how few books we can carry home with us.
From Rabbit at Rest:
From his expression and the pitch of his voice, the boy is shouting into a fierce wind blowing from his father's direction. "Don't die, Dad, don't!" he cries, then sits back with that question still on his face, and his dark wet eyes shining like stars of a sort. Harry shouldn't leave the question hanging like that, the boy depends on him.

"Well, Nelson," he says, "all I can tell you is, it isn't so bad." Rabbit thinks maybe he should say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.

23 January 2009

On the biggest Oscar snub of the season, David Carr writes: "Sure, the big studio movie The Dark Knight came up short, but that probably had less to do with who made it and how much it brought in than with a third act that left some moviegoers and Academy members cold and confused."

Right. Because the Academy would never nominate a movie with a confusing third act.

21 January 2009

Time for my Mystery Hunt review. I'll discuss individual puzzles in a future post. This year's hunt, Escape from Zyzzlvaria, was put on by the Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight who also wrote the hunt from two year's ago. It was fun, beautiful, and very ambitious. I subscribe to the Setec opinion that your first hunt should be short and clean, and your second hunt should push the envelope. By that metric the Bombers have been a great success. Furthermore this hunt fixed many of the issues that made my team not really enjoy their first hunt (lack of a feeling of progress, too much data mining, not enough puzzles available ever, and no pure metas). Although it went long, we had a lot of fun almost the whole time. Thanks a bunch to the Bombers for putting on a great show.

It's good to have an overambitious hunt once in a while that can raise the bar a bit and have lots of new ideas for other teams to process in their later hunts. Monopoly, Matrix, Time Bandits, and this hunt are the recent ones that had lots of new ideas. Of those Monopoly was perfect, while the other three wold have been improved by dialing it back a bit. It could rightfully be said that most of the structure of our SPIES hunt was just taking a third of the ideas from Time Bandits and doing them well. Of these I think Zyzzlvaria will be remembered as being the most innovative, and its impressive that they managed to be that overambitious while still ending up with an good product (sorry Time Bandits).

The dollarbucks round opening mechanism was really really good. Other teams in the future should just steal it. Really. The first round metas were beautiful, and by using round titles as a clue for each they allowed themselves more flexibility to use ideas that would otherwise have been too difficult (for example, Hiigari). I liked the idea of having a first half with pure metas and a second half with shell metas (although, see rant below). Having some pure metas is important to me as Mystery Hunt is almost the only time I get to work on them, but I'm happy with 5 good ones and shell metas allow for more flexibility. The Bombers used this flexibility very well. The production values raised the bar a lot (an actual game for each of us!). Finally the second half of this hunt had a greater number of interesting structural innovations than the last three hunts combined. It's really fun to figure out how different hunt structures work, and one of the downsides of mystery hunt relative to similar events is that there's often only one structure to figure out which leads to a low puzzle to structure ratio.

The puzzles were hard but fair (but hard!). It seemed to me that there were many fewer easy puzzles than in the Normalville/SPIES/Hell era. I was happy that this year seemed to have less data mining than Hell, but on the other hand it seemed that there were more puzzles where the answer extraction was difficult. I firmly believe that answer extraction should be either interesting or easy. Many puzzles (the hitchhiker's puzzle comes to mind) had fair gettable answer extractions that were still difficult to find and detracted from the overall quality of the puzzle. Nonetheless the puzzles on the whole were excellent. I'll have some shoutouts on particular ones after I get to go through the puzzles I didn't see.

Now for the rant... The second round metas... I joked at some point on Sunday that after everyone complained about the Senate meta the Bombers decided "Well maybe if we just make all our metas like this people will stop complaining and just figure that's how metas are supposed to work." Of the 7 metas we only solved Lazyr Zone. Nonetheless we had also solved Orbital Nexus modulo reading the clue phrase, and for both Astro Jail and Harvoid it was our fault not the puzzle's fault (we were close on Astro Jail but missed the connection with the cards even though we figured this meta used the cards, and on Harvoid we misplaced the box and forgot about it). The remaining three all had major major issues. Of the 4.5 point people from our hunt (Reid, Roger, Aaron, Andrew, and half me) I can't imagine any of us approving any of these three puzzle ideas without modifications. I'm still baffled by how they got in a hunt that otherwise was of such high quality. A checkers puzzle where not all the pieces are on the same colored squares?? Really? How could this possibly be a good idea?

Sometimes in these post hunt discussions I feel like some other people have a puzzle aesthetic that's totally foreign to that of my team. I can already anticipate someone commenting "Yes but the switching colors was clued! So it's fine." I don't care if it was clued, it's still ridiculous. The key property of checkers is that it only takes place on one color, a puzzle that ignores this is a bad puzzle. When you think of checkers as an option the first check about whether it's a sensible theory is to check if the pieces are all on one square.

On Combat Zone, I essentially solved the meta on my walk in on Sunday (my one good idea all hunt, I was mostly off my game), I showed up with a complete theory of how it worked that turned out to be exactly right. Except that the two obvious checks for whether my theory was right failed (the mapping wasn't well-defined because some of the reversed letters occurred multiple times on the same dice, and the ominoes didn't fit into a rectangle). We still tried it, but when we couldn't make out any words (we never had more than 7 puzzles) we assumed that we must be missing something (something in the names of the gods? the "God given order" given by the order of the gods? the pairing between puzzles and shapes?). Any small confirmation and we'd have solved this puzzle. Why not make it a rectangle? Why not make the mapping well-defined? Why not mark the boundary edges of the final shape? Why not put the gods in the same order as the puzzles? Sure the puzzle was solvable as is, but why not make it better?

The Virtual Sectors meta I just don't even want to talk about.

Our team's aesthetic is very much based on Setec's hunts and on the advice they sent us about puzzle writing. These three meta puzzles all fail badly: Was there only one aha? No. Were the steps obviously right in retrospect? No. Is the puzzle solvable without psychoanalyzing weird flavor text? No for two of three.

Again, other than these three puzzles (which didn't spoil our enjoyment of the hunt that much) it was an excellent fun hunt. But I'm really curious about how the second round meta debacles could have happened and how future teams can avoid it. Especially because in my mind it was only this issue that stopped this hunt from being in the argument for best hunt ever.

18 January 2009

Hooray! I finally gave in and turned on the heat in my apartment. Toasty and extravagant.

In other news, I attended Sundance screenings yesterday and today, and I'll go again tomorrow, Wednesday, and next Saturday. It's sort of surreal to watch a movie and then at the end be introduced to the director and the cast and be able to ask them questions. Much better than my last experience like this, with the Grizzly Man.

Yesterday I saw Push, which was a great movie that had everyone in tears. And in case anyone was wondering, Mariah Carey actually pulls off the role of middle-aged frumpy Jewish social worker. (She and Lenny Kravitz were the only cast members not in attendance. Carey probably didn't show up because she didn't want to be upstaged by Paula Patton.)

Today I discovered that not every Sundance movie is great. Victoria Day is a Canadian coming of age tale set in the late 1980s. It's technically well done, but it leaves about a million story lines unresolved. The director said that was intentional because that's how teenage lives are. Whatever.

The movie I'm most looking forward to is Good Hair, a Chris Rock documentary about, well, hair.

14 January 2009

Here's what Pauline Kael had to say about Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
Montalban is unquestionably a star in The Wrath of Khan (and his grand manner seems to send a little electric charge through Shatner). As a graying superman who, when foiled, cries out to Kirk, "From Hell's heart I stab at thee!," Montalban may be the most romantic smoothie of all sci-fi villains....And that great chest of Montalban's is reassuring—he looks like an Inca priest—and he's still champing at the bit, eager to act: he plays his villainy to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty....You know how you always want to laugh at the flourishes that punctuate the end of a flamenco dance and the dancers don't let you? Montalban does. His bravado is grandly comic....This man, who believes that his search for vengeance is like Ahab's, makes poor pompous Kirk even more self-conscious. Kirk is Khan's white whale, and he knows he can't live up to it—he's not worth of Khan's wrath.
But then again, who would be?

08 January 2009

Quote of the day, from Nate Silver:

In his career running for statewide office, [Norm] Coleman has lost to a professional wrestler, beaten a dead guy, and then tied a comedian.