My Spacelab in Space

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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:

ORDER GROUPS BY ORDER

FIRST NUMBER EIGHT HUNDRED EIGHT SEXDECILLION SEVENTEEN QUINDECILLION FOUR HUNDRED TWENTY FOUR QUATTUORDECILLION SEVEN HUNDRED NINETY FOUR TREDECILLION FIVE HUNDRED TWELVE DUODECILLION EIGHT HUNDRED SEVENTY FIVE UNDECILLION EIGHT HUNDRED EIGHTY SIX DECILLION FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY NINE NONILLION NINE HUNDRED FOUR OCTILLION NINE HUNDRED SIXTY ONE SEPTILLION SEVEN HUNDRED TEN SEXTILLION SEVEN HUNDRED FIFTY SEVEN QUINTILLION FIVE QUADRILLION SEVEN HUNDRED FIFTY FOUR TRILLION THREE HUNDRED SIXTY EIGHT BILLION

SECOND NUMBER SEVEN THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED TWENTY

etc

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!

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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

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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.

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

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Buzzard Rock and M31

One of the overlooks on the way to the top.

 

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M31, M32 and M110 from the campsite.

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

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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.

M81

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M82


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.

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Sunset one of the nights.

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Another sunset shot.

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Sunrise over the water with a cool mirage effect.

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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?”

badge

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.

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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.

M97

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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(Part 1, Part 2)


Winter Star Party 2015 Part 2

(Part 1, Part 3)

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

M46

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.

Rosette

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

(Part 1, Part 3)


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.

M78

An autoguided shot of M83 with the Edge HD.

M83

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.

M42

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

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An even closer, autoguided, shot of the Horsehead.

Horsehead

(Part 2, Part 3)


Mystery Hunt 2015 Wrap-Up

This is my write-up of my experiences at the 2015 MIT Mystery Hunt. First off, let me warn those of you wanting to solve some of the puzzles, “Here there be spoilers”. (Also, some of the links might not work right away, as it’s still set up for username/passwords from the hunt.) I’ll try to keep it light. I’ve written before about the Mystery Hunt. To loosely describe what happens, 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.

I should take this time to mention the team that I solve with, Palindrome. It’s mostly filled with people from the NPL, plus a handful of MIT alums. There are approximately 75 people on it, and the specialities of the team are quite broad. We have multiple PhDs in math, physics, biology, etc, plus people who have encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes, video games, etc. The puzzles at the hunt are so incredibly broad that it helps to have a huge team so that when that puzzle comes out that requires extensive knowledge of Laurel and Hardy, you’re set. Two people in particular I’d mention are our captain Eric Berlin (whose write-up covers some other stuff) and Foggy Brume (who runs Panda Magazine; totally worth the subscription if you like puzzles). These two were metapuzzle monsters! There was one round this year with 56 puzzles and Foggy helped us solve it with 34 answers (better than any other team)! We still needed to solve the rest of the puzzles in the round to unlock other puzzles, and it became a race to see whether we could forward-solve them or Foggy could backsolve them first.

The theme of this year’s Mystery Hunt was a Steampunkish version of Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. At the kickoff in Kresge Hall, we were told that we were basically going to be descending deeper and deeper into the ocean to eventually find “Nautilode stones” (there was a Dr. Nautilus theme, too). We got back to our room and started solving. I first worked on Erraticism, a straightforward crossword puzzle with 4 missing entries. Following that I worked on Nope!. This had a bunch of rebus pictures that resembled Linux error codes. The error code is different under different architectures and that played into the puzzle, too. There was also something I need to check out later, where they made a side-by-side Zork-like game with time travel. For instance, in the left window, you would find a dripping faucet and you put a bucket under it, then in the right window, you can pick up the full bucket.

I ended up going on my first MIT runaround puzzle. This isn’t the final runaround, but more of a “find these places around campus”. We were given a list of very specific instructions, leading to 8 locations. You basically had to keep track of things like how many calories were on a particular food item in a vending machine, or how many letters were on a plaque. We got two pieces into it and got totally stuck. The clue had us going to an Anthropology display of a bunch of ropes. We had to take the colors of the leftmost rope (red and white), then go up to the next floor that has that color scheme. Then we had to find a door that was labeled incorrectly. We never did figure out what they were talking about, but we were basically supposed to take the room number and use it to find our next location. We managed to guess where to go. It was also at this point that we ran into the team Luck, I Am Your Father, the team that would eventually win, and they were just as lost. Anyway, after eventually getting all 8 pieces, we were supposed to place them on a map and find the one that had all of its vertices on points where we picked up pieces, then find the centroid and go there for the final part. We worked on this part FOREVER. In the end, it turned out it was literally the room just below our team HQ!

After a few typical rounds, we got to the School of Fish round. I won’t say much about this, because I understand the team running the hunt (One Fish, Two Fish, Random Fish, Blue Fish) is releasing it as a book! The puzzles are about 1/3 the difficulty of a typical Mystery Hunt puzzle, so it was accessible to amateur solvers. I thought that was a pretty cool thing this year. One thing that was a little frustrating, though, was that the way it worked, we only had a few puzzles at any time and lots of bottlenecks. My first Mystery Hunt on-campus was the 2013 one that lasted longer than any previous Hunt. It was Sunday afternoon (long after the hunt ended this year) and we still had 50 puzzles open! Here, there would be maybe 15 puzzles, maximum, and it was really hard to find one most of the time.

We got to a round called Pod of Dolphins and a puzzle came out that I totally would’ve knocked out of the park…five years ago. It was called Representative Characters and while working on another puzzle, I hear a teammate say the flavortext: “We have encountered an alternate group of beings with 24 irreducible representative characters.” My ears perked up, because this is a group theory problem, and that’s what my PhD is in. I started looking at this, and immediately knew it meant character theory of A10. I also knew exactly how to solve the puzzle, but I couldn’t remember the intricate details of how to solve it in my program of choice (GAP). Fortunately, we got the answer by backsolving, but I do plan to look at this later (my advisor would be so ashamed). We ended up having six of the nine answers in this round and knew exactly how the meta worked, so we called in an answer for a puzzle that would’ve required us to go to the New England Aquarium (who donated free tickets). We would have to go during their normal business hours, but thanks to backsolving, we got the right answer at 10 PM on Friday, stunning the team running it.

The Coral Reef round had a few interesting puzzles in it, but the one I’d mention specifically was Ariel’s Scavenger Hunt. The Mystery Hunt usually has a puzzle that involves bringing various items for a scavenger hunt. This had a list of made-up words (thingamabobs, etc) with descriptions like “something to help me see better”. I was able to use a Canon light pollution filter for that one. We also brought a cowbell and managed to find a way to shoehorn it into every category. For instance, for “something I can wear to a dance”, we said she would be the “bell of the ball”. My favorite item we had was “so I can have a soul”, and someone had a Zip Card that you can get a Kia Soul with.

There was also a Graveyard round. Check out Eric Berlin’s blog post to hear what this was about. Ermagherd!

At this point, we got to four towers that led us down to Atlantis. Two of my favorite puzzles from the Hunt were in the “Spiky Tower” round. The first was “A Case of the Monday Crosswords“. There were a bunch of crossword clues that were mostly “stupid puns”. We got all of the answers (my favorite was the answer to: Barry, Robin, and Maurice’s accomplishment, at least until 2003?). A few years ago I started doing the New York Times Crossword. The Monday puzzles are usually really easy, and the long answers all fit some sort of theme. It turns out these were all three extra answers in that same theme. I had the initial “aha” on this one, a very satisfying feeling. Immediately after that, the same group worked on Lead Right. There was a video of people square dancing with somewhat cryptic clues over them. It turns out the square dance move was missing from each clue. Fortunately, there was someone on the team who knew what the terms were.

Our last round to solve was the Spotted Tower. I should mention the metapuzzle here. It had a list of words and that was it. We were trying to solve it without all of the answers, and we already had three of the five needed: BLINDNESS, DISLOCATED TAILBONE and TRIPLE DECAPITATION. If you looked at the words, these were all wordplay references (remove the i’s, move the last letter earlier, remove the first three letters). We found a handful of words in our grid that you could apply those to and get words out. We were trying to just look at the words left and guess what the wordplay thing was, but we still had no clue how to solve it. One group of solvers had just finished most of the legwork on a puzzle called Benny Lava. This is a reference to this video:

where the foreign words are subtitled poorly, but roughly phonetically. The final instruction was to make a video of Gangnam Style in this manner. Since we had only a handful of puzzles left before we finished, we needed to do this, and in a hurry. Turns out someone on our team is a documentary filmmaker and her friend does techy video editing, so she had everything we needed! (Aside: yes, she is hoping to do a documentary about the Mystery Hunt!) About six of us disappeared into a room for about 2 hours to make this video. I actually never got into the Gangnam Style craze (matter of fact, I didn’t even watch the whole thing until after it overflowed the YouTube counter). Now, I can’t get it out of my head, except all the words are from our version. We submitted the video and got a phone cal about a minute later from HQ. They gave us the answer to the puzzle, which, I kid you not, was ANAL BLEEDING (alternate blog post title: That Awkward Moment When you Have to Tell Your Team the Answer is ANAL BLEEDING). The wordplay thing that went along with this was to add A, B, O or AB to the tail of the word (har har).

That left one regular puzzle to solve in that round, and we still didn’t know how the meta worked. We split into two rooms with one team working on the puzzle left, which was a nonogram with bad entries. In the other room, we worked on the metapuzzle.

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We suspected the word PANACEA was part of the answer, and someone finally noticed that the words we didn’t use mostly had PANACEA as part of them, so we pretty quickly found ENCHANTED in the top half and called that in.

This left just one meta-meta puzzle before we could go on the runaround. I contemplated going back to my hotel for a few hours of sleep (I woke up around 7 AM and it was almost 1 AM), but about 10 minutes later, we finished that puzzle. We had to do one activity before going on the runaround, but we actually didn’t realize that. We were supposed to just send five people to the Green building and do a puzzle that involved a ton of stair-climbing. Instead we sent everyone and many of us sat in a cramped stairwell, hoping to hear something.

Then the runaround started. We met “The Kraken” and were told we’d have to accomplish 5 tasks. The first involved a Family Feud style puzzle where we would have to, for instance, name a fish that started with ‘H’. (And yes, someone from our team said humahumanukanukaapuaa…and it was on the list). Then we went to a room where we had to identify snippets from previous puzzles in the hunt. This was really cool cause they would show some absurdly small piece of a puzzle and someone, from our huge team, would say, “OH! That was _____”. The third challenge was to find a bunch of fish hidden all over a building, and take “selfies” with them. This was super-fun as we were able to split up into teams. Some were in plain sight, but others were in pretty absurd spots (inside a box, behind a poster). The fourth challenge was a huge word search:

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We started looking at it trying to find words and we found a ton, but it turned out that all of our answer words between 6 and 10 letters, save one, were in there. If you highlight the answers, you get semaphore letters, which ask for the answer that’s left. The awesome thing is, we managed to discover the answer to one of the two puzzles we hadn’t solved yet right here.

After solving this, we were told we would have to wait. As it turned out, five teams were on the run-around at the same time. We also discovered that Luck, I Am Your Father had just found the coin (around 5 AM). That’s always a little disappointing, but it does mean we get to solve next year! It was actually while waiting that one of our teammates collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration (he’s ok, but spent the night in the hospital). We were told to go back to our room and wait for a call when they were ready for us. The final task we had to complete was a game of Human Pictionary. A handful of people would go up to the second floor and the rest would make a picture on the floor out of our bodies. The first few weren’t too bad. This is “Shipwreck” for instance:

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We did one that took a really long time (Dr. Nautilus), and a really tricky one (Sea Lab). After finishing 10 puzzles, we were led to 26-100, where the Kraken was. Since we weren’t the first team to solve, we ended up not getting the coin, but we got a cool piece of magnetite.

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After heading back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep, I went back to our team HQ and found two groups working on the one puzzle we had left (the nonagram). After about 5 hours of solving, they got the answer about 30 minutes before HQ closed. It was an amazing accomplishment. After dinner, a few of us actually went back to HQ and worked on some of the School of Fish puzzles that we never saw (thanks to backsolving).

The day after the Mystery Hunt is kind of like the day after Christmas for a kid. So much excitement builds up, then it’s over. I’ve made many friends solving with my team and am constantly impressed with the breadth of knowledge and the sheer amount of fun that we have. One thing I can always hold onto is the fact that even today, Luck is designing the 2016 Mystery Hunt. Until then!


Old Rag Mountain Hike, October 2014

Some photos from a recent hike of Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah. Click on any photo for hi-res.

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October 2014 Lunar Eclipse (with Uranus)

The October 2014 Lunar Eclipse, taken close to sunrise. Uranus is barely visible in the upper left. Taken with a Canon 60DA.

 

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