Warning: The following blog report assumes a heck of a lot of context. You might want to read other reports first regarding the Day in the Cloud competition to establish that context.
So last night at 8pm, I arrive in LAX knowing very little about the actual competition. I had done the practice test so I knew the format, and I vaguely knew that our flight was competing against some other flight, but there were many things that I generally find important to a puzzle competition that I just plain didn't know:
Fortunately, a bit of that information appeared on the shuttle to the hotel, in the form of two Google employees (whom I didn't know beforehand). I asked them these questions, and got them partially answered. Research and collaboration was allowed. Ask your friends on the ground to help you if you want. There were two similar "ringers" on the other plane. One of them was called "Kid Beyond". That's all.
I had previously arranged to meet a couple of old college classmates for dinner at the Original Pantry. I admit that I was not a wonderful dinner companion as I pushed my G1 into overdrive, discovering/remembering that "Kid Beyond" was Andrew Chaikin, sending a mass e-mail to puzzle people I could think of that did not work for Google that would make a possibly-useful home team. I did make one mistake I should have caught (Tyler Hinman works for Google! I should know that because I referred him for the position, too!) and one mistake that was honest (apparently Thomas Snyder was one my opponents and so not a useful ally). It was a bit of a crapshoot, since the competition would be around 6-8am tomorrow and I was sending out the e-mail at 9pm.
Fortunately, some information came back usefully. Alexandra Dixon responded saying that yes, Andrew Chaikin had sent out a "Try this!" message to the NPL list, and that Mike Selinker was also playing. At which point I went "I'm going against the double team of Chaikin AND Selinker? No way I'm winning this one. I might as well just have fun."
Which means... A four-player game of Le Havre that went until 1:30 am! Woot!
Around this time I'm chatting with Ian Tullis. Since the event started at midnight, Ian decided to take the test. He reported back, saying that he took too long on some questions and wasn't able to finish, and that it would probably be a good idea to be more aggressive instead of trying to get a perfect score. We talked a bit about how the event stops people from cheating, and our reasoning was that perhaps the puzzles on the planes ("the important ones") are different, but all the on-the-ground puzzles were the same. I asked him to nevertheless send me an e-mail summary of what he could remember of the questions.
This left about two hours of sleep before I had to wake up to catch my flight. I think I even dreamt that I overslept. But no, everything was fine, except that for most of it I was in this sleep-deprived state where nothing really felt real. Which actually persists until now, when I'm writing this blog. But I digress.
I got to the gate, in the process learning two relevant things: one, there didn't seem to be another "partner in puzzling" for me to be with, and two, Ian had come through with a nice list of some twists and observations he saw, things like "start the magic square on the diagonals" and "there's something about state quarters".
I'm seated in 3B, which is a bulkhead seat. In other words, no carry-on stowaway during takeoff, which means no laptop. So, main thing to do is to carry on a conversation with the guys in 3A and 3C.
Sitting in 3C is a guy from Gogo Inflight Internet. I learn a little bit about how Inflight Internet works (surprisingly, it's a 3G network) and some background story about the Richard Branson animated video that plays on Virgin America. His opinion of the practice puzzles: "Man, I couldn't understand those puzzles at all. They were tough."
Sitting in 3A is Mike Barish, a freelance writer who is there writing a piece for gadling.com. We talk a bit about New York and Tokyo. His opinion of the practice puzzles: "They were rather neat, how they get you to use Google Apps, which I use all the time. The Gmail one was very cute."
We're almost at cruising altitude, so I mention that I'm probably going to find help in research and parallelization very useful, and since neither of them work for Google or Virgin America, their help would be very welcome. They seem willing to do this.
And we're off. The overhead bins open, laptops come out, chargers get plugged in... and the inflight internet slows to a crawl as 40 people try to create accounts at the same time. Things are especially bad for me because the internet is rejecting my username and e-mail, mostly because they're already registered (on a Virgin America flight back in late May when I really needed to get some Sudoku playtest results back to my co-author Thomas Snyder on our upcoming book "Sudoku Masterpieces") and so is incompatible with today's free internet promotion. Fortunately, the guy who knows what's broken with the Internet is sitting just to my right so we know not to panic.
At this point one of the sponsors asks if I would like to move to first class since there's more room and I'm effectively the star player. I'm a bit reluctant, part of it being that I'd have to put my splint back on, and also that I'd lose my new-found
Mike managed to get Internet first, so I went through the first two rounds of puzzles with him. I basically provided him instructions as to what the puzzles were asking for and what to do with them. I also scrawled down the answers in case my set had the same puzzles. Then I got my internet working, and it turns out that the first two rounds were indeed the same, so I caught up quickly. I then convinced Mike that it would be best if we focused on my console while I asked him to do the occasional research question. Also amazingly fortuitous was that he knew two pop culture pieces that came up, about Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Desperate Housewives, two media properties which I could identify the puzzles as referring to but not knowing the trivia. Our double team ended up working rather well -- I would open a round, do a quick survey of all the questions, copy-and-paste one that I think Mike could look up into a small Windows Notepad window I put in the upper-right corner of my display, and focus on the more crosswordy or logic puzzles while Mike did the more researchy and Google-Apps-heavy stuff.
At some point I have a small guilt twinge; I'm ordering Mike to do all this stuff and I'm not really giving him the chance to work on the puzzles I consider fun, or delay things so that he has a chance to get the insight. I'm taking all the good stuff and using him as gruntwork. But as I write this, I realize (rationalize?) that most people who only have a casual interest in puzzles actually prefer the so-called "gruntwork" over the unhappiness of staring at a puzzle and not knowing what to do. So maybe Mike actually had a lot more fun doing what I had him doing rather than being in my position. I sure hope so.
Also, because of Ian's advice, I was more aggressive with time and partial information. I was perfectly willing to guess words when I only had "V?DKA" and "E?GLE". Although, I did start noticing that as I turned in rounds, I wasn't getting perfect scores. Still thinking of Chaikin+Selinker, I expected that I was going to be letting my plane down with all the missed questions.
We only got stuck at one point; when we were told to do some formatting on some text to make a hidden image appear. Mike had no idea; I had no idea. We stared at the puzzle for maybe a minute. But one of my puzzle-solving habits, which is to repeat aloud a puzzle you're stuck on in the hopes that it will trigger something in a teammate worked out -- the news reporter looking over my shoulder got the insight! I wanted to hug her then and there, but it took all I could to just eke out a compliment that didn't sound condescending.
We're working on Round 9 when I'm thinking more about the missed questions and wishing I had recorded which ones I missed so that we can go through Mike's account and maybe get a perfect score. Especially since I had around 20 minutes left on the clock (out of 60), which was
*way* too generous so I was regretting my aggressiveness somewhat. But, I rationalized, perhaps the creative challenge would take up that time, so I submitted round 9 and went on.
I'm reading the creative challenges and trying to think of a rhyme for "cloud" when I hear a big cheer come up from the whole plane behind me. "We've won", they said. What? The creative challenge wasn't part of it? I managed to outdo Selinker? I was skeptical. But, I was also too tired/lazy to seek confirmation -- that's what winning is like when you're just in the event to have fun, I guess.
Then the TV crew starts setting up (while I'm still busily trying to compose lyrics for the creative challenge) and the news reporter (Suzanne Marques) tries to interview me. I talk naturally, getting cut off by "I don't understand that at all" while I'm explaining what I think is one of the more accessible puzzles. (She later tells me, "You just completely geeked out on camera with me. That was so cute.")
The plane lands, probably about 1 hour late (because of the Internet problems, they decided to take their time in the air). This of course means that there were probably some unhappy passengers who were trying to catch a connecting flight or get to a business meeting who are annoyed that this media event is screwing their schedule up. One such character rushed ahead and passed all of us while running in a big hurry.
Suzanne Marques: "Oh, watch out, we better let the real passengers go first."
The Running Guy: (very loudly) "SHPX YOU, TOO!" (first word encoded in rot-13)
Suzanne Marques: "Hey! I was being serious!"
That's probably one of the most amusing moments all day. Unless you would like to make fun of the lyrics I wrote in the last 15 minutes of the contest:
Enjoy the world
with the day in the cloud
Never be bored
and say this aloud:
Everything is connected
when you live in the clouds
Every line is expected
when you live in the clouds
Everyone can do it
no matter your status
have fun anywhere
while flying through a stratus!
Everything is awesome
when you live in the clouds
Everything and then some
can be found in the clouds
Don't worry so
about problems in flight,
Because you know
Everything's going to be all right!