My Spacelab in Space


Mystery Hunt 2018 Wrap Up

I know this is a few weeks late for me, but I wanted to wait for the public links to puzzles to be active.

Once again, the Mystery Hunt is in the books. I’ve written about this before (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017). As usual, I’ll start with “Here, there be spoilers”. I’ll be talking about puzzles and solutions, so if you want to work on them on your own, stop here!

This was my seventh year competing with Team Palindrome. As is our tradition, we picked the team name Flower/Ewe/Werewolf this year. Joe Cabrera really outdid himself with our nametags:


(What follows is verbatim from a previous post).

Anyway, I’ve spoken about the basic format of the Mystery Hunt before, but for the sake of completeness, it’s a collection of about 150 puzzles that have no instructions. If there’s no instructions, then how do you solve them? Well, you typically look at the information you’re given. Sometimes it’s pictures of people or places, other times it’s crossword clues. There’s usually some “aha” moment (although from past experience with my time, I would call these “ooooohhhhhhh” moments) and you end up piecing things together and eventually get an answer, which is a word or phrase.

There are also rounds that have a handful of puzzles in them, and you put them all together for a metapuzzle. These are a huge deal to solve and we try our best to solve them with as few answers as possible. In a Mystery Hunt sized extravaganza, there are also meta-meta puzzles and typically the “meta-meta-meta-puzzle” is the runaround, where the goal is to find a coin hidden somewhere on campus.

Team Palindrome had a serious discussion about five months pre-Hunt about whether we wanted to split or not. In 2017, as our leader, Eric Berlin, put it, “We cut through the hunt like a hot knife through butter”. While this made us a very competitive team, it took away from the hunt experience because there was nothing left to do after about 18 hours. It was decided that we would split with a team that was hoping to win, and a second team that was just hoping to finish the hunt. That team was smaller and went by the name Funny Enough (a phonetic palindrome). They didn’t finish the hunt as hoped, but did really well all things considered. The metapuzzles proved to be quite brutal for all teams.

I kind of want to be on a winning team, even though the reward/punishment is planning the hunt next year, so I stayed with the larger team. Mostly, it was a fine experience.

Kickoff started at noon on Friday and there was an Inside Out theme. The production levels were gorgeous! (Video here). We were supposed to help Miss Terry Hunter retrieve her memory orbs.

The Hunt usually starts with a smaller round with more straightforward puzzles. This year, there were thirty or so puzzles that each had a colored orb on their page making them belong to one of the five emotions (Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger). Some of these orbs were multi-colored indicating that the answers belonged to both. There were five meta-puzzles and a meta-meta puzzle.

In this round, it was a little difficult to make major contributions on puzzles because our team buzzed through them, but I added things here and there where I could to In Memorium (a puzzle about people who died in 2016 together with their quotes in various alphabets/encodings), Let’s Get Ready to Jumble (a newspaper jumble type puzzle with a wrestling theme), A Learning Path (basically finding Hamiltonian paths through square grids and overlaying quotes on them), Good Fences Make Sad And Disgusted Neighbors (A slitherlink variant) and Jeopardy! (a puzzle about Secret Service codenames).

One particularly interesting one was Asteroids. There was a game that you played mostly identical to Asteroids except occasionally your score would jump by huge amounts. As you played the letters would appear on the bottom “Order by Semi-Major Axis”. It turns out that the amounts you jump by are numbers of Asteroids that were named after someone (who knew Morgan Freeman had one named after him?!). Indexing into these by the distance between the special asteroids gave the answer.

We had ins into the metapuzzles remarkably early! For anger, we had a grid to put our answer into. Each answer contained some subset of the letters R, A, G and E. Treating these as braille pips gave the answer. In an astonishing find, a teammate discovered how the Fear meta worked with just one answer! There was a “Health and Safety” page and it was discovered that our one answer appeared in there once. The flavortext made a hint at this and asked what came next, so we knew exactly what to do there.

As we solved these metas, the emotions came by and gave us some curios. We got:

  1. A string with certain sections painted green (disgust)
  2. A blueprint with a picture of Eeyore (sadness)
  3. A metal key (anger)
  4. A 7-foot piece of lumber (fear)
  5. A small flashlight with a laser pointer (joy)

After our last interaction, we got a small runaround that was choose-your-own-adventure style. You walked around campus and at certain points would be asked how you feel. This was done by looking at certain items and noticing their color. We got to the first room where we were supposed to recover the disgust memory fragment. It was a small study carrel. As soon as we got in, we realized that we needed the items above, so we sent some team members back to get them. It was very crowded in the room, so we decided to leave one team member there and go forward in the instructions. We pretty much knew exactly what to do and didn’t think it would be an issue. There was a green pegboard with nails and letters on it and a star. You needed to take the string and wrap it around the nails where the string was green. We ran into our teammates with the five items on the way to the next puzzle, so we figured out how to use the Eeyore blueprint and got the word “heartfelt”, a positive spin on “sadness”. We got to the third item and had to wait for our team to catch up. As it turns out, they were unable to solve the first puzzle, so we agreed to come back later. At the third puzzle, putting the key on a piece of paper lit up the word “passionate”, a positive spin on “anger”. We continued on a path that took us into the bowels of MIT (I continually find it fascinating how easy it is to get to places with circuit breakers and what-not) and we got to a place where we needed to hit a button above a door with our 7-foot board. The problem was, this was next to some machinery, so it was not very clear. Some team members went down directly under the button and heard the word “Fascist”. In fact, one person suggested having the other get on his shoulders and quickly realized that was not a good idea! After hitting that thing a dozen times, we made out “Cautious”, a positive spin on “Fear”. Finally we found a poster with sunglasses on it with a tiny hole. Shining the laser in there gave us “delightful”, a synonym of “joy”. We went back to the “disgust” answer and spent about 15 minutes trying to make something work with no luck. Figuring something must be wrong, we went back to HQ and called the running team. They went in with our string and discovered that it had been stretched. Giving us a new one, we got the answer “tasteful”, a positive spin on “disgust”. We were a little confused what we had to do then. It turns out we only had to submit those five words as answers, but we spent some time trying to solve a metapuzzle using them.

As we solved puzzles, we started opening “islands”. There were four of them and you could choose which one you opened. The four were Games, Hacking, Sci-Fi and Pokemon. As it turns out, the organizers thought people would click on Pokemon first, but we chose it last. This had slightly easier puzzles.

I’d also mention that the first night we got a call from control that said people were progressing through the hunt faster than they had expected and wanted to know if it was ok if they increased the amount of “brain power” (ie puzzles solved) needed to unlock islands. This seemed like a good compromise so we acceded. I’m not sure if this worked out in our favor or not. The islands proved to be brutal for almost everyone involved.

I’ll also take this time to mention that I tried to portion out my sleep to be as useful as possible to my team. We knew that the overnight is usually where we struggle the most, so several people made a point to come in to work then. I would work until I felt tired, then get a few hours nap, then come back, so I got to see the overnight shift Friday and Saturday nights at least partly.

Looking at the list of puzzles, I don’t think I did any serious work in the Sci-Fi Island. The meta-meta puzzle here was apparently a bit of a sticking point, but eventually they solved it. It basically gave a circuit diagram on a cube, and they needed to look at the voltage across the batteries.

The Pokemon round was the last one we opened, and as soon as we did, loud cheers of excitement could be heard. Each puzzle had a regular version, then an evolved version. The regular puzzles were hard, and the evolved puzzles were even worse! To give an example, Shoal Patrol was a mixture of Battleship, Minesweeper and a Loop Puzzle. When you solved it, you got a 3-d version of it (Submarine Patrol)!

Probably my best experience from this year happened with the puzzle Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt. At first it looks like a simple “navigate a ninja through a maze” web game, but it turned out that once you enter a command you are locked out for four seconds, so you have to play as a team. Our team spreadsheet for this puzzle explicitly told people to not do anything if they weren’t in the room with us. In fact, at first, we thought we had an AI troll that was trying to screw with us. In the first room, you see a bunch of guards that you have to avoid. We had, I think 8 people playing this, so, expertly coordinated by Andy Kravitz, we made our way to the first major obstacle: a bridge that became a lava pit after just a few seconds. We all loaded up an “east” command, but it wasn’t enough. After realizing that we could use multiple browsers, we got past that and made our way to a bridge that moved across a lava pit and turned. This took SO much coordination. In fact, we spent 20 minutes planning it out because we didn’t realize there were checkpoints. Of course, we died on our first attempt…and our second attempt, etc. It took probably 30 tries to get past it. Anyway, we finished the first level, then the next two fell fairly quickly. I left before the extraction was figured out, but it turns out that you have to combine aspects of each level: the guards spell out a letter in semaphore, the shape of the level looks like a letter, and the items you collect at the end started with a letter. This opened an evolved puzzle called Under Control where the team had to give instructions to someone in a room with a green screen, but there was a delay.

When I came in on Sunday, I joined with a group that was trying to find some fliers hidden around campus for the puzzle Go!, a reference to Pokemon Go and the board game Go.

This round also had the infamous Scavenger Hunt. A woman on our team named April has taken this on the last few years and helped us round up tons of weird items. This year, it was in the form of a maze. Because our team is large, we have to find more stuff. We had to find sets of things to get “keys” to unlock doors in the maze. For instance, for a green key we could have a team member be “The Doctor” which required:

  1. Classic Who memorabilia from before 1997
  2. Team member who can list all the actors who have played the Doctor in order
  3. Sonic screwdriver
  4. Jelly babies OR fish sticks and custard

One team member had brought a sonic screwdriver without knowing it would be needed and was wearing Tardis earrings. When asked by the judges to list the actors, she said, “Which list do you want?” and they said “Whatever makes you have to give more names”. Another had a “Theoretical Physicist” which required a team member to explain quantum mechanics.

We desperately needed to get this done on Saturday night, so we worked hard to get the necessary ingredients. Afterward this “evolved” into a weirder scavenger hunt. Let’s just say our team went to great theatrics to convince them of all the items here. In fact, the funniest one was that we noticed that even though the first scavenger hunt had a “Theoretical Physicist”, then second one did not, but there was a “Professor” to whom you had to give “Tenure”…whatever that means. So we had someone LaTeX up a paper complaining about the lack of a theoretical physicist. It was even “peer-reviewed” (someone on the team wrote “This is great!” on it) and after presenting it, there was a “faculty meeting” where our “theoretical physicist” was given tenure.

In the Games round, I worked some on A Tribute: 2010-2017, the annual puzzle that reference previous years of Mystery Hunt puzzles. I love these!

I spent probably an hour working on Cartography. This one was very fun. Each journal page hides the names of a bunch of locations inside US national parks. For instance, in one of them, the first letters of all words spell out Gaylor, Lyell, Foerster, Long, Hoffmann,Watkins,Starr King, Buena Vista, all locations in Yosemite. Tracing them on a map spells out the letter N. Doing this for all pages then ordering the letters based on where they lie on the US map gave us the answer.

Before I get to the meta-meta for that round, I’ll mention the Hacking round, which had a lot of puzzles that involved doing stuff on-campus or various arts and crafts that we had to pick up. I ended up working on one of the regular puzzles, The 10,000 Puzzle Tesseract. This gave us a zip file with a word list and some examples of what various functions are applied to sample words. Then a folder with 10,000 puzzles in it. The functions were things like “elements” where you took all substrings that are chemical elements, then added up the atomic numbers. There were seven total functions. Our team figured them out, and someone was going to create a csv file with values, but it turned out that one of the functions required some real thought to code up. “index” referred to the index of the word in the lexicographic ordering of all unique permutations of the word. Doing this is not as easy as just listing all permutations, especially for the longer words, so I worked on a much more efficient version that worked recursively. I tried using the csv file to now solve all the puzzles, but kept running into puzzles with no solutions or puzzles with multiple solutions. As it turned out, the values in the csv were bad for three or four of the functions, so I tried to remedy that and mostly got a list of the 10,000 solution words. That’s when I ended up going home, and later, I believe this one was backsolved. According to the wrap-up, basically every team backsolved it, and looking at the solution…yeah…I can see why.

Anyway, when I went to my hotel in the wee hours on Sunday, I kind of expected the coin to be found while I slept. That was not the case and I came in just as a America’s Best Friends opened up. This was a fun cryptic about presidential dogs, but we solved it really quickly as our team usually does with cryptics.

That left us with, more-or-less, two puzzles to go until we unlocked the runaround. We figured that was probably the case with several other teams. Unfortunately, both of the meta-metas we had left had been pored over all night and it was hard to make contributions at this point. I remember occasionally trying to get a nap, then having a “brilliant” idea after overhearing the team working on a particular puzzle. The Games page had a Settlers of Catan style board with hexagons, and the meta meta page had pentagons. Roughly, we had to create a soccer ball out of the two of them. Our major red herring here was that we thought that there was something monopoly related here because a silhouette was the shape of Uncle Pennybags. The flavortext also said something about “Australian rules”, so we started searching for Australian versions of Monopoly to relate this. As it turns out, this was mainly just cluing that we had to take letters from antipodal points on the soccer ball. That was something we thought we had actually tried earlier, but it turns out that if you’re supposed to build a soccer ball, you should build a soccer ball and not just leave it in the folded out version. Figuring out antipodes on the folded out version is way tricky! Anyway, we called in that answer and were told we had to wait about an hour for the interaction. Apparently lots of teams were having the breakthroughs we were at the same time.

The final stumbling block was the Hacking meta, Flee. This was a maze through the Great Dome, where you get one floor’s worth of adjacencies per meta round. One of the floor’s adjacencies was given by going to rooms on campus and finding some walkie-talkies and figuring out which ones could hear which other ones. This jammed us for quite a while because it turns out we did the test early on Sunday and got one set of adjacencies, but later we went back to double-check and things were different. It turns out something went wrong with the radios sometime in between our two tests. At this point, I was quite exhausted and got a little rest, only to wake up and find that two other teams had already started on the runaround. I went to grab some dinner and came back to find that our team had solved the Hack meta after realizing that there were exactly as many adjacencies per floor as there were letters in the metapuzzle answers! The answer spelled out by the path through the dome was ON A CALTECH CANNONBALL RUN. This references a prank where some MIT students stole the Caltech Cannon in 2006.

About an hour later, we embarked on the endgame. There was a really cool setup with mechanical buttons that basically did a live version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes complete with a webcam elsewhere on campus. We roughly had to guide the person across campus to the room we were in.

All told, we finished the hunt around 5:30 PM and came in third. While waiting for the runaround, we used our “Buzzy Bucks” to buy the answer to the one remaining puzzle, giving us 100% completion. We’ve solved every puzzle four of the six years that I’ve been doing this! It’s a great accomplishment.

I had a ton of fun this year and look forward to what the winning team, Setec Astronomy, has to bring next year.

Bicolor H alpha, O3 Veil Nebulae

Veil Nebulae

M8 and M20 HaRGB

Mixture of a Hydrogen Alpha and RGB shot. H-Alpha is a recent shot, RGB is from a few years ago.

M8 and M20

Orion’s Belt and Sword

Orion’s Belt and Sword from the Winter Star Party. Canon 60DA, 3m subs, 200mm f2.8.

Oriong Belt and Sword

Mystery Hunt 2017 Wrap-Up

Here’s my annual wrap-up of the 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt. I’ve written about this before (2014, 2015, 2016), but as always, I’ll start off with “Here, there be spoilers”. I’ll be talking about puzzles and solutions, so if you want to work on them on your own, stop here!

This was my sixth year competing with team Palindrome. As is our tradition, we pick an interesting palindrome for our specific team name. We picked “Too Long, No Loot”. This is a reference to the fact that even though most of the time, we don’t want to win (winner plans the next year’s hunt), it’s been a while and our team was itching to plan it. Joe Cabrera makes us great nametags every year, too.

(What follows is verbatim from a previous post).

Anyway, I’ve spoken about the basic format of the Mystery Hunt before, but for the sake of completeness, it’s a collection of about 150 puzzles that have no instructions. If there’s no instructions, then how do you solve them? Well, you typically look at the information you’re given. Sometimes it’s pictures of people or places, other times it’s crossword clues. There’s usually some “aha” moment (although from past experience with my time, I would call these “ooooohhhhhhh” moments) and you end up piecing things together and eventually get an answer, which is a word or phrase.

There are also rounds that have a handful of puzzles in them, and you put them all together for a metapuzzle. These are a huge deal to solve and we try our best to solve them with as few answers as possible. In a Mystery Hunt sized extravaganza, there are also meta-meta puzzles and typically the “meta-meta-meta-puzzle” is the runaround, where the goal is to find a coin hidden somewhere on campus.

To be honest, I didn’t follow much of the overall structure to the Hunt for reasons that will become clear. The kickoff on Friday was a great skit of a group of people playing something similar to D&D with some characters in costume. The basic premise was to level up your characters so you could find out how to defeat Mystereo Cantos. This is an anagram of Too Many Secrets which is also an anagram of Setec Astronomy, the team which ran the hunt. (This is a reference to the movie Sneakers).

Before I get to the puzzles I worked on, let me say, this was a very short hunt compared to previous years. Prior to 2017, I believe Saturday night was the earliest the coin had been found. A mixture of large team sizes, plus really clean, and maybe a touch too easy puzzles, made teams like ours blast through it. The puzzles were released at 1 PM, and I ended up going to my hotel for a quick nap around 5 PM. I came back in a few hours later and worked until about midnight. I looked at how many puzzles we had unlocked and/or solved and I saw we were nearing the 150 puzzles that we’ve seen in previous years. I thought that there was no way it would be done before I woke up. Turns out I was wrong. Another team, Death and Mayhem from Above, found the coin just past 4 AM and we were a few hours after that.

Because of the desire to win, we had many people planning to work the graveyard shift so they went home early to get some sleep. Part of me wonders what would’ve happened if our full team contingent had just stayed until it was solved. I think I would’ve not gone home at midnight if I had known that. There certainly were some people on our team upset about the length of the hunt. Those of us who came from out of town now had lots of free time. We did make the best of it, but I do feel like I missed out on a huge part of the weekend by not getting to puzzle all day Saturday. Now, that being said, in years past, I’ve gotten really burned out on the specific puzzles from the hunt that once I get home and look at the other puzzles, I don’t feel like working too hard on them. But now, I totally do!

One thing I’ve always found interesting about Mystery Hunt puzzles is the fact that just by staring at them, most of the time you can’t tell what sort of knowledge you need to solve them. If it’s crosswordy, I usually have a chance, or if it references some part of pop culture that I know well (Weird Al, The Simpsons, etc). And sometimes by using Google, you can figure it out. I kind of wish the archives of the Mystery Hunt would have some sort of hint system so that I don’t spend hours looking at a puzzle and not realize that it contains subtle references to some TV show from the 70s that I’ve never heard of.

Alright, on to some fun puzzles that I worked on. We started with three characters: The Cleric, The Wizard and The Fighter. At the beginning there was a mad rush to work on stuff, so I only supplied a few answers here and there. One great puzzle “Swifties” was full of a variant of Tom Swifties. An example of a Tom Swifty would be, “‘This pizza place is great!’ Tom exclaimed saucily.” Basically awful puns. The aha here was that these were TAYLOR Swifties, ie the answers were all the titles to Taylor Swift songs. It’s pretty accessible, so I won’t say anything more about it.

At some point, we had an interaction to unlock the Linguist. They showed a video of this at the wrap-up. There were two computer terminals that were on different sides of the room. One person had to read a series of “passwords” to the other person. These passwords were things like onetwoTHENtwoallcapitalized or CarrotCaratKarrittThenTheSymbol^. Very funny. They got a puzzle that was printed on a dot matrix printer called Dot Matrix. I had the aha here, which involved answering the clues in Morse code left to right and use the dots and dashes as braille in the highlighted squares. Adactyl was interesting. It had a bunch of trivia questions that were all missing a digit. For example, “What movie was ranked #3 on AFI’s 2007 list of 100 Greatest American Movies?” It’s missing a 6 and the answer is “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. We had enumerations below so we had somewhere to start.

There was also an Economist round that I totally missed, then a Chemist round. There was a puzzle called Out of the Mouths of Babes with clips of toddlers singing portions of a song that all had the word “Baby” in the title. It was surprisingly hard to make out what they were saying.

I worked some on Star Search in another round, mainly identifying a few songs. They all had the word “star” in them. Reading the solution, I should’ve been all over this, but let’s chalk it up to sleep deprivation. Turns out, you map the 88 piano keys to the 88 constellations! Wow, I feel dumb.

I looked at another one called Star Tours. It had a picture of the North America Nebula (something I’ve taken multiple pictures of). I was interested right away. It had coordinates and mentioned two cities, Vegas and Orlando. Those coordinates roughly show where those cities appear in the nebula. Now, the hook to this was something I’m NOT very familiar with, namely Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez tour dates. I was quite tired and not in the mood to look those up, so I went back for my nap. I realized the puzzle shouldn’t be that hard on my way back, but by the time I woke back up, it was solved.

There were two math puzzles that were downright amazing. The first has the sounds-dirty-but-really-isn’t title “Great Tits“. (I will try my best to be mature and not giggle while writing this). I definitely got a strange look from our team leader when I told him we called in an answer to it (apparently he had not seen the puzzle title yet). So there were two pictures of the “Great Tit” bird and 1600 characters below. If you touched the either of the tits (teehee) the 1600 characters shuffled around. The real clue was that the word Tits was capitalized in the flavortext, so it was actually referring to the Tits group, discovered by the most unfortunately named mathematician ever. It’s a group with about 18 million elements and has a permutation representation with two generators that corresponded to the two tits. The idea was to push them in some order (restraining myself from a motorboat joke here) to unscramble. I ended up just loading the generators and the message into GAP and randomly shifting the message around by elements until I hit the right one. The message said:





Now, I was quite amused that they included a number that big, but we quickly figured out that we had to take the 26 sporadic groups and assign them a letter A to Z. Maybe next year there can be a puzzle about boobies.

Just after this one was solved, I looked at Digital Display which just consisted of a large fraction. Using alphanumerics on the digits, we got the message to look at the 1000th digit. Going there, we got the message to look at the googolth digit. Oy. Anyway, it’s possible to shortcut it and get the answer.

There was a really cool book we got called The Puzzle at the End of the Book based on The Monster at the End of the Book. I didn’t work on it, but it looks awesome!

One of the highlights of my hunt was getting to solve a variety cryptic crossword, Fleshed Out, with three of my favorite people (Kevin Wald, Katie Hamil and Mark Halpin). Kevin and Mark are experts at constructing these types of puzzles, so it was a bit of a race to answer anything, but I was able to keep up.

Just after that, I worked on a diagramless crossword, Long Time No See, where the letter ‘c’ needed to be removed when it showed up. The grid ended up looking like Killian Court and there was a single x in it. We went there and found the list of Faculty for the Math Department. Removing the ‘c’ gave us the answer.

Just before leaving, I worked on Dammit Jim, obviously a reference to Bones from Star Trek. It ended up being rebuses (rebi?) of the names of bones.

That’s when I went home to sleep and woke up around 7 to find that the coin had been found. Now, there were still three events left to do (Setec had run them special for us during the night), so I checked them all out. The first was a President’s Race type event with giant heads of MIT alums. I got a picture with crossword celebrity I.M. Pei!


The second was a strange mix of Hungry Hungry Hippos (full size with humans) and bananagrams. The third was a trivia contest where each of the answers had to be altered.

Since we always want to solve as many puzzles as puzzles, we only had six puzzles left when I got to HQ. These were, naturally, quite hard, so it took a lot of effort, but we split the work. One that I did was Tricks With Bricks. As it turns out, each of the lego pieces shown only appeared in that color in one Lego set. Indexing into the set by the number of pieces shown gives the answer.

Late Saturday night, we had three puzzles left. One that was a mixture of cricket and darts, one that had a bunch of song clips that had been pitch-altered and one that I worked on, House Arrest. This one had sound clips of someone tracking a “suspect” through certain MIT dorms. We got the MIT undergrad on the team to get us the floor plans and were working toward the solution when someone called it in as a backsolve. We got the answer as a forward solve a few minutes later. Within a few minutes the other two puzzles fell as well. So for the third years since I’ve been coming, we were completionists!

I’d also mention that I did a great Escape Room at Boxaroo and also went to Boda Borg. Both were amazing.

Here’s hoping for a great hunt next year by Death and Mayhem!

Monoceros Wide Field

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Cassiopeia Wide Field

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California Nebula

California Nebula with the 60DA. Composite of H-Alpha and Light Pollution Filter Shot.

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Gamma Cygni Area

The area around Gamma Cygni. Composite of H-Alpha and Light Pollution Filter. 2 min subs.


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Embryo Nebula H-Alpha


Flaming Star Nebula H-Alpha

The Flaming Star Nebula, H-alpha and Light Pollution Filter composite.

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North America and Pelican Nebulae. H-alpha

I just got a Hydrogen-Alpha clip-in filter for my 60DA. Totally blown away by some of these shots (click any for hi-res).

First the H-alpha of the North America Nebula. Taken from my backyard…with a neighbor’s security light on.


Combined with a color shot I took a few years ago.




Buzzard Rock and M31

One of the overlooks on the way to the top.



M31, M32 and M110 from the campsite.

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A cool canopy of trees that kind of looks like North America.


M57, the Ring Nebula

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M81 and M82

Shot these in my backyard with a light pollution filter through my SCT. 10-minute subs.


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Winter Star Party 2016 Part 2

I also did a lot of shots of Orion and the various nebulae.

Flame Nebula.

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The Belt and Sword region.

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And the whole constellation.

Winter Star Party 2016 Part 1

It’s quite late coming, but here’s some of my better shots from the 2016 Winter Star Party. Wide field of the Southern Sky with the Southern Cross on the Horizon.

South Sky Huge

Sunset one of the nights.


Another sunset shot.


Sunrise over the water with a cool mirage effect.


M35 with the Jellyfish and Monkey Head Nebulae.


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Nice shot of M51 with my autoguider through the Celestron SCT.

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The Eskimo Nebula.

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The Eta Carina Nebula, wide.

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Close-up of the Keyhole Nebula.

Eta Carina

Rosette Nebula.

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Wide field of Canis Major.

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Mystery Hunt Wrap-up 2016

Well, the 2016 Mystery Hunt is in the books. As usual, I’ll warn you: Here there be spoilers! This is pretty long, so to summarize, it was fun.

This was my fifth year competing with team Palindrome. As is our tradition, we pick an interesting palindrome for our specific team name. This is usually done via voting about a month before and usually requires a second round to pick the winner. But this year, we had an overwhelming winner on the first vote: “Dammit I’m Mad”. It makes me wonder how we went so long without using it. The team did have a ton of fun answering the phone, “Dammit I’m Mad. How may I help you?”


Anyway, I’ve spoken about the basic format of the Mystery Hunt before, but for the sake of completeness, it’s a collection of about 150 puzzles that have no instructions. If there’s no instructions, then how do you solve them? Well, you typically look at the information you’re given. Sometimes it’s pictures of people or places, other times it’s crossword clues. There’s usually some “aha” moment (although from past experience with my time, I would call these “ooooohhhhhhh” moments) and you end up piecing things together and eventually get an answer, which is a word or phrase.

There are also rounds that have a handful of puzzles in them, and you put them all together for a metapuzzle. These are a huge deal to solve and we try our best to solve them with as few answers as possible. In a Mystery Hunt sized extravaganza, there are also meta-meta puzzles and typically the “meta-meta-meta-puzzle” is the runaround, where the goal is to find a coin hidden somewhere on campus.

Kickoff began Friday afternoon welcoming us to the MIT Muttstery Hunt. They made it sound like the hunt had a Dog Show theme. A few minutes in, something clearly went wrong and it seemed like we were apart of someone’s dream. As we would later discover, the Hunt had an Inception Theme. The idea was that there was some uber-dreamer somewhere on campus who and ten levels of dreams between, down to the Muttstery Hunt. Each round was themed after famous dreamers: Rip Van Winkle, Sleeping Beauty, Opus, King Arthur, Ysera, Dreamtime, Pam Ewing, Randolph Carter, Sleeping Gypsy and Endymion. I’ll get to the endgame later, but first, I want to talk about some of the puzzles.

In the Dog Show round, I started off on Ladder Dogs. This was a series of cryptic clues involving dogs. Cryptics are so popular on our team, it’s usually hard to work on these because we solve on a Google spreadsheet and the clues get filled in within minutes. We found that the clues broke into triples such that the second word was a transaddition of the first word and the third word was a transaddition of the second word (eg HIATUS, SHIATZU, AZIMUTHS). Sorting by the second letter added gave the answer in the first letters.

I worked on two puzzles in the Rip Van Winkle round. The first, Indecipherable was a Viginere cipher encrypted by a sequence of letters that was the melody to a popular song. The second was a very cool ASCII art puzzle. We got a list of four messages with numbers followed by a very long string of ASCII. Factoring the numbers yielded four prime numbers, up to about 139. Putting the message on the largest width gave an ASCII image hidden in the middle of the text with “CUT HERE” on the box surrounding it. For instance, for one, we got a picture of the polar ice caps. Deleting that section and putting on the second largest width gave us a picture of ice. Continuing gave us a picture of the Po river. And the last width gave us a picture of baseball caps (or just “caps”). Removing the last three strings from the first string leaves the letters LAR. Doing this for the four pictures gave the phrase WALLAROO (cross-breed of a Kangaroo and a Wallaby).

I also worked on two puzzles in the Sleeping Beauty round. Fire Swamp was an interesting one where you basically solve a bunch of Ken Ken puzzles and fit them into a grid in an overlapping manner. The final step was pretty cool, too, where the unclued boxes made either plus or minus signs! There was also one called Trubled Monicas, which is one of my favorite types of puzzle. As an example, you get a string CHARACTERIZEEEBEETHEEPRESENCEEOEEFROZEEEWATEEE. Here the clue is saying “Characterized by the presence of frozen water” but with the last letter of every word changed to an E. The answer is ICED, but you change it to ICEE as in the clue. Anyway, the hook was that these were all items from pop culture that misspell words in their names (eg Def Leppard, Blu-Ray). Another one I didn’t work on, but was at least somewhat interesting was “identify, SORT, index, solve“. These are the basic four steps of lots of puzzles, but in this one SORT was by far the worst. You had pictures of things that ended with “ian” or “ion” so they sounded like numbers. These were said to be equal to various large numbers. To give some context, the number of particles in the known universe was the third smallest. In fact, even Graham’s number, which I believe at one point was the largest number to ever appear in a serious math article, is the seventh largest in this list.

The only puzzle I really worked on in the Opus round was Crushed Petals which I thought was fairly straightforward. The King Arthur round proved to be one of two major stopping points for us. We had solved a fair number of the puzzles and knew the metapuzzle had something to do with the periodic table, but it took us way too long to realize it was the circular periodic table we should be using. Oddly enough, with four new elements being announced a few weeks ago, I read up way too much on the periodic table and actually saw that table. The main puzzle I contributed to here was Click to Win. By this point, I was looking for a chance to stretch my legs, so the first part of it was a detailed hunt around campus. Questions like find the second number on the serial number on this lamp post. We did them all and got the numbers 1 through 8 in some order. If you go to the link above, it takes you to a very annoying website with lots of ads to click. Each ad actually references some building on campus close to one of the 8 spots. This took us quite a while to realize. There was one more puzzle that had an amusing story. Follow the Pipes was basically another hunt around campus. You can read the solution on the page, but the group working it ended up with a few letters missing from their answer. What they were supposed to call in was ONLINE PORN (note: the puzzle did not feature any of this, they just needed the phrase for the metapuzzle). Instead, they called in BOVINE PORN. Minutes later we got a call from Hunt HQ saying that, no, that was not the answer. They were laughing. Just to be funny, later in the hunt, on a puzzle that had a sheep theme, we called in OVINE PORN.

For the Ysera round, I mainly worked with a group doing Vagabond Tours which involved getting pictures all over campus. Each one had to include two of ten items. Since someone with a DSLR camera was on the list and since I had one, I was in most of the photos. I also took one photo, with the camera, where I jumped in the air while doing a peace sign. We got in a strange conversation with a student or professor in front of a bathroom (where we had to take a picture). I didn’t really do anything in the Dreamtime round.

In the Pam Ewing round, I worked on one puzzle that I thought was incredible cool, we just never got it. World’s Longest Diagramless utilizes one of my favorite types of puzzles, the Diagramless Crossword. Here you get clues, but not the grid, so you have to figure out where the black squares go. This had a list of about 90,000 crossword clues. The top part solved like a regular diagramless, then had clues for AARDVARK, ABATING, ABET, ABDICATING, ABANADON, ABASE and ABREAST. Well, I was proud to be the one with the “aha” here as this is the order of the words that Yakko sings when he sings the dictionary.


In the episode, they cut away then come back a few times and we found that those words were all clued in the order of the song. The key to the puzzle, which we missed, was that for a stretch of those clues, the first letters spelled out a phrase. My favorite part of this puzzle is that in the song, Yakko messes up at the F’s and says, “Frankincense, Frankish, Frankishish, Shoot, Yada Yada, Flambe”. They clue all of these words (Frankishish being “Kind-of sort-of relating to an ancient Germanic tribe”).

I didn’t do much in the Randolph Carter round, but I will mention two puzzles. The Gibbous, Non-Euclidean Program involved fixing code that was written in Fortran 66. The Eldritch, Gambrel Scavenger Hunt was where having a large team really hurt us. The scavenger hunt usually involves just find a bunch of random things and that’s kind of what it was this year, but as you see, we have to cover a lot of area in a grid, finding things that fit three adjectives. It was incredibly hard because we have a large team, so we had to find more stuff. Fortunately, we had an awesome woman on our team who did all this for us.

In the Sleeping Gypsy round, I only worked on Sculptural Disassembly which was about Hanayama puzzles. I had given my brother one of them for Christmas a few years ago and recognized the general theme of the puzzle. We identified most of them, then I believe I started working on another puzzle before this got solved.

The Endymion Round proved our downfall, and was likely why we didn’t win the hunt. Of the 12 puzzles, we had solved 11 before we figured out the ordering of the answers for the metapuzzle, which had me kicking myself. We likely could’ve solved this from 6 or 7 puzzles, opening the runaround that much sooner. Each puzzle had a quote associated with it, supposedly from Endymion, but really from another source. Turns out the first names of the real speakers were all men who had walked on the moon, something I know a LOT about. Anyway, this round proved to have some of the nastiest puzzles of the hunt. It Is What It Is was about a kids show called Doc McStuffins, where she diagnoses her toys with fictional diseases. There were drawings of her toys, but the diseases were linked with the wrong toy. We quickly figured out that that would give us an ordering, but then we got stuck on the extraction (which turned out to be the page number from the original list). This puzzle falls into what we call STDPA (Solve the Damn Puzzle Already). We had spreadsheet after spreadsheet of things that might be relevant, including things like voice actors names. This was the only puzzle we didn’t solve that round. Orbits was probably my favorite of the hunt. It had a 135 MB text file where each line had an 8-letter string, sorted alphabetically. After lots of looking at the data, we found that if you look at every row 1 mod 7, you have a Y. 2 mod 7 you have an M, and so on. The string was YMCAYMC. On other cuts we found BINGO repeated four times, then BINO. We also found TROUBLE, DIVORCE and MICKEY MOUSE fairly quickly. These were all songs that spell out something. While solving this puzzle, it brought together two factions of our team in an interesting way. Lots of people on the team are the programming nerd type while others are the Broadway/theater nerd type. We asked for them to give us some other songs where they spell out something and we found DIVORCE, OKLAHOMA and METHODOFLOVE. Each of these was repeated a number of times, then a letter was dropped. After some massaging, this gave the answer.

I also had an interesting time on The Man in the Moon a cryptic crossword by Mark Halpin. Like I said above, lots of people on our team like cryptics and are very good at them, so it’s hard to get to work on one at the Hunt. But this happened to come out at about 3 AM, so there was a smaller group of people there and I got to work on it and see all the clues get solved by hand! There were several “aha”s here. It was pretty clear off the bat that most clues needed a letter changed to another letter. It turned out that a handful of other clues had two straight definitions and neither of the answers fit in the grid, but their overlap did, eg AUNTIES and UNITIES give UNITES. The letters that get dropped, when sorted correctly, gave the phrase CRTCHAKAPOWERIZE. We misparsed the clue which took forever to figure out. It’s supposed to be “CROTCH AKA, POWDERIZE”. The leads to GROIN and GRIND as answer, the overlap of which is GRIN.

Time Suck proved to be one of the evilest puzzles of the hunt. It was a 10-hour YouTube video featuring the Spongmonkeys from those Quiznos commercials of the early 2000s.


While describing this puzzle to a coworker he said, “Thanks a lot. I had forgotten that those things existed.” It’s basically grotesque creatures that sing really, really poorly. My team watched for about 2 minutes and discovered that one of them sang a horrible song that went on repeat and at 1:59, the one playing the guitar has a word bubble pop up with a letter. One person used the scroller on YouTube to go through the video and found the letters TSA, which we submitted and was not the answer. It was later discovered that the message actually said TIMESTAMPS AS MINOR PLANET NUMBERS. The letters only popped up for a single second and it was hard to catch while scrolling. One member of our team dedicated several hours to rewatching the video and finding approximate locations of each time stamp. He watched it very sped up and was sometimes off on the exact timestamp by 30 minutes, so the team had to refine it. It turns out that every time a letter appeared, the second Spongmonkey screams a number, which I hadn’t noticed because I had it on mute (the music was really, really annoying).

Solving all of the metapuzzles for these rounds unlocked the Limbo round. This featured ten short puzzles that were callbacks to prior puzzles, one per sleeper round. We operated on a false hypothesis that really killed our progress for a long time. Specifically, the idea was that we had to solve the first puzzle in order to solve the second one, and so on, then we would use the kicks to come back out. In fairness, that is sort of what the graphic implies. It turns out that all of the puzzle stand alone, but we spent a ton of time working on the Rip Van Winkle fragment. There was Morse Code that hinted that 11 names of people on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band were hidden in the round. We only found 10 of them, but a few were in question. It turns out, we did have the right idea, namely to use the rows of the cover and convert to Morse Code based on where the people were.

While solving this we heard that another team, Setec Astronomy (a reference to the movie Sneakers), had found the coin. This was quite surprising to my team. Setec had won three hunts in rapid succession in the early 2000s and was sick of running it, so they instituted a rule: Solve a puzzle, take a drink. The hope was that slight inebriation would keep them from accidentally winning. I know several people on Setec and was told that they actually kind of wanted to write again, so they tried this year.

Hunt HQ announced that they were only going to be open for another 90 minutes. The Hunt had already lasted 53 hours, which appeared to be longer than expected. I, for one, didn’t mind the length of the Hunt, mainly because the last two finished early Sunday morning and it didn’t appear like this one was heading into Monday like the 2013 Hunt. Much of our team left, but we started making progress on the other puzzles. The Sleeping Beauty Fragment referenced “FONETIC FUTHARK”, a very old alphabet. It turned out the puzzle “Blocks” had Futhark symbols hidden in it! We got the solution and quickly made progress on others. For the Opus fragment [link] someone found the two words listed (RADIO and ACTIVE) in the Rose Garden puzzle. For the Pam Ewing fragment it referenced striking oil in between the rocks and calcite. Thos two words were in the solution to the diagramless crossword mentioned above and the letters “OIL” appeared all around. Eventually we had enough to guess the meta puzzle answer and unlock the runaround, about 15 minutes before HQ closed.

The host team graciously let us do the runaround. We had to send 10 teams of three to 10 locations on campus. HQ would send us a word to sync us and within 5 minutes, we had to send them a photo of us holding up the word and acting out the metapuzzle answers for each sleeper. I was among the last three in the room and we still had two locations to go. I went in a group of two to the place where we had to “LAUGH LIKE A CRAZY KOOKABURRA”. My friend ended up having to go, by himself, to another location and “KISS AURORA WITH GUSTO”. We were able to get these all done, and they sent us all on a mini-runaround, themed to the characters from the corresponding round. Because my friend was at a location by himself, we ended up doing both his and our runarounds. We met up with members of the host team and got pieces to a puzzle and were
told to go to Lobby 7. The rest of the team was there and we had four pieces to a puzzle. We quickly saw that it told us to go to The Alchemist art piece across the street.

We got there and some members from Luck basically said, “That’s the end of the hunt”. Setec had gotten there a few hours earlier and found the real coin, which was taped against the white sculpture with white tape.

Anyway, this was a superfun hunt and I look forward to what Setec has for us next year.

Grand Canyon Floor Huge Mosaic

A mosaic of 16 shots taken with my Canon 60DA. Click the picture for the full-resolution image (137 megapixels).

Small mosaic


Grand Canyon

I did a plane and helicopter tour of the West Rim of the Grand Canyon with Maverick.

IMG_0248 IMG_0253 IMG_0258 IMG_0284

Sedona Red Rocks

Did some hiking near the Red Rocks in Sedona. Here’s some hi-res pics.

This is the view from a few miles away, showing Bell Rock in the middle, Cathedral on the left and Courthouse on the right.


Sedona Wide

And a few close-ups of Bell Rock.


Bell Rock 3  Bell Rock 2 Bell Rock 1

Winter Star Party 2015 Part 3

(Part 1, Part 2)

Autoguided shot of the Crab Nebula with the Edge HD.

Crab Nebula

The Pleiades through the 200mm lens.

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An autoguided shot of the Owl Nebula.


One other major draw of the star party is being able to see Eta Carinae. This nebula is better than M42! Here are three shots, successively zoomed in. The first is with a 200mm lens.

Eta Carina 200mm

The second was with the Astrotech refractor (about 450mm focal length):

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The third was an autoguided shot of the Homunculus Nebula in the Edge HD, the really bright part at the top of the image:

Eta Carina Edge

My favorite shots were of vast Milky Way regions to the south, all with the 35mm. Here’s the region just below Scorpius featuring the constellations Ara, Lupus and Circinus:

Below Scorpius

Here’s Sagittarius:

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And, my favorite, Scorpius. Lots of detail in Rho Ophiuchi, too.

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Winter Star Party 2015 Part 2

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M46 on the left (plus the Rotten Egg Nebula) and M47 on the right, taken with the 200mm lens.


This one I unfortunately forgot to write down what it was. It’s somewhere in the Canis Major/Puppis region, but I can’t seem to find what exactly it is.

Identify Later

An autoguided shot of the NGC 2467, the Skull nebula, in the Edge HD.

NGC 2467

An autoguided shot of NGC 4038, the Antennae Galaxies, in the Edge HD.

NGC 4038

An autoguided shot of the Rosette Nebula with the Astrotech.


Wide field of Auriga with the 35mm.

Auriga Wide

One awesome thing about the WSP is being able to see the Southern Cross, barely above the ocean. Here’s a wide-field shot with the 35mm. The cross is at the bottom.

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Here’s a close up of the cross with the Coalsack Dark Nebula visible at the bottom left:

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The California Nebula in the 200mm lens.California Nebula

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Winter Star Party 2015 Part 1

(Part 2, Part 3)

I just returned from the 2015 Winter Star Party on Scout Key in Florida. I wrote about this last year (part 1, part 2, part 3), so I’ll skip some of the details. I’ll just say that the view to the south is absolutely pristine.

I pulled into line around midnight the night before and there were about 10 people in front of me. Like the year before, I flew down and had someone from the area drive most of my gear. This year, I took my Celestron 9.25″ Edge HD and some autoguiding equipment. I also had my Astrotech refractor, an Astrotrac mount, a Canon 60DA and a Canon T2i. For lenses, I had a Tokina 11mm-16mm, a Canon 35mm f1.4L, a Canon 50mm f1.4, and a Canon 200mm f2.8L.

This year turned out to be kind of mediocre for most of those attending, mainly due to the weather. The skies were actually gorgeous as I pulled into line, but we couldn’t do any real observing from the side of the road. As we pulled into the camp, the wind was blowing quite hard making setting up our tents a bit of a challenge. The wind would prove to be a major issue. Monday night it was actually pretty calm although the clouds were in and out all night. Tuesday was clear for about an hour or two, then thunderstorms came through the area. Wednesday was mostly clear, but also cold and extremely windy (above 20 mph). Part of the reason many go to the WSP is to be able to observe Orion in short sleeves. That wasn’t happening this year. The visual observers were ticked because it’s hard to operate a big Dob in heavy wind. I was quite fortunate in that my mount is quite heavy and sturdy, and since I was taking photos, I could easily wait out the cold in my tent. Thursday proved to be the best night of the week, although it was about 50 degrees and still pretty windy. My group packed up on Friday morning. My friend who drove my stuff down said it was the worst one he’d been to observing-wise.

Anyway, here are my shots. Click any photo for a hi-res. I’ll leave out the exposure details for now. Comment if you’d like to know.

This is a wide field of Canis Major with the 35mm and T2i.

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Shot of Comet Lovejoy with the 200mm.  The stars are 51 And and Phi Per.


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An autoguided shot of M78 with the Edge HD.


An autoguided shot of M83 with the Edge HD.


An autoguided shot of Omega Centauri in the Edge HD. This took up almost the entire field of view.


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Wide field of Orion. The Orion Nebula is the really bright area in the middle. The Horsehead is just above it to the right. Also visible is Barnard’s Loop just above.


Orion Wide

A closer shot of the Orion Nebula region with the 200mm.


A closer shot of the Horsehead and Flame region with the Astrotech.

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An even closer, autoguided, shot of the Horsehead.


(Part 2, Part 3)