You’re sitting in your living room, one eye on an Agatha Christie novel and one eye on the TV, which is showing the latest episode of Sherlock (you have trained your oculomotor nerves for this purpose.) It’s boring, because you’ve already solved both mysteries and are tired of watching Monsieur Poirot and Mr. Holmes bumble about. Suddenly, you realize that there is one puzzle in the universe you have not solved: what did Anna H. ’14, the MIT blogger, spend the weekend of Jan 13-15 doing?
Your instinct is to do what you ALWAYS do when you have a question about her MIT life (right? right?) – e-mail her! You’re in the mood for a more challenging/illegal way of doing things, though, so you get one of your minions to steal her computer. First stop: gmail calendar, obviously. You get to the site, and but the blinding array of colors with which she color-codes everything makes it impossible to extract any useful information. You give up, and decide to look at her browser history instead; after all, this is winter on a 21st century MIT campus, so chances are that whatever she spent her weekend doing involved the Internet.
You start with Friday Jan 13. Gmail. Gmail. Gmail. Facebook. Gmail. Facebook. Gmail. Scroll scroll scroll. Gmail. NYTimes. NYTimes. xkcd. Facebook. Gmail. Your eyelids are beginning to droop when you reach 6:30pm – and things begin to get interesting.
You haven’t the faintest idea who those people are, or what that little red B icon means – but a quick glance down reveals that wheoever they are, they prompted Anna to start reading about saints.
…and so on, and so on, until, FIVE AND A HALF HOURS LATER (she spent her ENTIRE FRIDAY EVENING reading about obscure saints?!)
She didn’t just Google saint names.
She used incendiary WHAT as a WHAT?
How alarming. And why on earth is she searching things in LATIN?
Your expertise with dead Romance languages tells you that this means “this day.”
Right around then, search terms involving festivals, holidays, and actions begin to appear (to your disappointment, incendiary doves do not make another appearance.)
You force yourself to concentrate on finding trends in the search history. You separate the search terms into two categories: those involving saints, and those involving festivals. You realize that towards the beginning of the evening, she showed more interest in descriptions of the festivals (ex. “festival climb on table, discus throwing day”) and descriptions of the saints (ex. “saint killed in battle”, “saint doves as weapons”) – but that, as the night progressed, her search terms became both more name-specific, and more date-specific (ex. “saint february 20”, “November 17 holiday, “saint nennocha june 4”, “January feast days”).
Aha! Feast days. Dates associated with saints. You realize that she is interested in finding out which feast day corresponds to a saint with a particular description (ex. “saint killed in battle”). She presumably started with a description of the saint, since those were her first search terms. Similarly, she started with descriptions of festivals and then ended with dates. Where do saint feast days and festival dates intersect? Well, both are…dates. Hac die. Could she be comparing dates? Matching up saints with festivals that happen to fall on their feast day?
And, if so, why would anyone spend their evening doing that?
The key lies in the page she visited about half an hour after her last saint- or festival-related search term.
You recognize that icon. It’s the MIT icon! And puzzles, well…Anna is an MIT student, after all. MIT kids like their puzzles. Could she be doing a puzzle? A puzzle about saints and dates and festivals? You keep scrolling and realize that, if this was the case, the saint/date/festival puzzle wasn’t the only one she tackled that weekend. Her browser history shows similar (though less lengthy) Google search fixations: the periodic table, three-word common expressions (ex. “little boy blue”, “take the loss”, “cold comfort farm”), Sherlock Holmes, suffixes, anagrams, frequencies of different letters in the English language, alkaline cleaning materials, stock tickers, South Indian chicken potato curry (South Indian chicken potato curry?!), something called “The Eye of Argon”*, children’s songs, children’s nursery rhymes.
*More on this shortly.
What kind of weird puzzle – or set of puzzles – would involve reading about South Indian chicken potato curry AND children’s nursey rhymes AND anagrams AND Sherlock Holmes AND cold comfort farms? Also, what kind of weird puzzle collection would involve running searches at these obscene hours –
From Friday “night” (if that’s still the right word for it):
From Saturday “night” (the search history tells you that this was a sleepless night):
From Sunday “night”:
Your immune system is trembling at the thought. Finally, one page in her browser history reveals the source of this weekend-long intellectual adventure:
MIT Mystery Hunt. An annual puzzle competition for some of the world’s most intense puzzle-solvers. Hunt is held over one weekend during IAP; alumni swarm back to campus in droves and students recruit friends from within and outside of MIT to join in the quest. This year, the hunt had a musicals theme (“Borbonicus and Bodley” are a spinoff of “Bialystock and Bloom”, from The Producers.) 33 teams representing hundreds of participants signed up, and devoted the weekend to performing all kinds of outrageous intellectual feats at the whims of the devious puzzle designers.
Below are some of those outrageous intellectual feats (such anecdotes are, I think, the only way to do some shred of justice to Mystery Hunt.)
One puzzle I worked on was called “Pirates of the Tyrrhenian” (see here) which presented a very suspicious-looking “loot list” (what the heck would someone do with 1400 apple pies?) and a map of the US that assigned each state a letter. Three of us worked on it together, and spent about twenty minutes playing with the numbers to figure out what they could possibly mean. At some point, one of my friends decided to try converting the numbers to Roman numerals. I’ll be frank: never in a bajillion years would I have tried that, because Roman numerals spit out useless-looking letters like X and L and M and C. The letters didn’t look useless to my friend, though, who somehow thought up the possibility that these could be stock tickers.
When you convert the number 1400 to Roman numerals, you get MCD. You know what you get when you look up the MCD stock ticker? McDonald’s. 1400 apple pies. McDonald’s. We screamed and high-fived and jumped around and rushed to look up all the rest of them; we found the state each corporation was based in, plotted them on the map, found the corresponding letters, and scrambled them to spell STOCKBROKER, which turned out to be the answer.
So. Awesome. How my friend figured that one out, I will never understand.
My favorite puzzle-ing experience by far was when the same group of us tackled “Argh” (take a look.) There were 31 short sound files, each following the same format: 1) a man speaks, not in words but in “hmm”s, 2) the man laughs, 3) a girl responds in English. We realized that we had to figure out what the guy was saying, based on his intonation and the friend’s response – however, this would be next to impossible with only that information. We therefore decided that he must be reading from some text available online, and set about trying to figure out what that could be. Why was he laughing? Was he making a joke?
In two different clips, the girl mentions a name: something that sounds like “Grigner”. We Googled it – no luck. Griggner? Grygner? Grignr? Breakthrough. Grignr is the main character in a text called “The Eye of Argon”: a famously terrible piece of prose, written by a teenager “who could usefully have been replaced by an infinite number of monkeys“* back in the 1970s. A little bit of research taught us that a popular game is to try and read out loud from “The Eye of Argon” without laughing (we tried – it’s next to impossible.) This explained the man’s laughter. The only remaining task was to comb through the story and, using the girl’s responses as guides, find the 31 passages. Combing through “The Eye of Argon” at 3am with two very sleep-deprived friends – I may never laugh so hard again. It was fantastic – and very cool to realize how easy it is to match a passage of text with particular intonation patterns.
By taking the first letter of the last word of each quote, we got a sentence, one word of which was BLANK. We found that sentence in “The Eye of Argon”, and the answer to the puzzle turned out to be the word corresponding to BLANK.
At this point, it was around 5:30am, so we decided to go back to French House to get some sleep. We had been hunting over at Random Hall, since Random and French House have a nice tradition of working together on one team. Campus was completely deserted – there were no bleary-eyed backpack-wielding college students scrambling to get to class on time, no late-night partyers, no cars or campus shuttle or birds. Just us late-night hunters, reveling in the adrenaline of solving puzzles. We held scarves over our faces to block the wind and admired Mars, which had risen up high and bright and red. One builds a lovely camaraderie from solving puzzles.
Actually, I shouldn’t say from solving puzzles. I should say from working on puzzles. You know that saints one? With the festivals and dates (and clues in Latin)? We spent something like seven hours working, and never actually solved it. At some point, we gave up and moved on, because we were tired of scouring the darkest corners of the Internet for the most obscure saints ever. This time, we bonded not through high fives and celebrations, but through a sort of shared angst (AHHH WHY DID I JUST SPENT SEVEN HOURS OF MY LIFE DOING THAT I NEVER WANT TO SEE ANOTHER SAINT-RELATED WEBSITE AGAIN.) Being able to enjoy the process regardless of the end result is a wonderful luxury; many teams (including ours) don’t actually aim to win, because the winning team earns the right to design the puzzles for the next year, and most people would rather solve than create.
So! Now you know what Anna the blogger spent Jan 13-15 doing. Congrats. Turn your problem-solving skills elsewhere (if you’re interested, here’s a link to this year’s puzzles) and return her computer before she notices and freaks the heck out.