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Day in the Cloud -- Virgin America Flight 921 [Jun. 24th, 2009|10:34 am]
Okay, since I suspect no one is going to be blogging too much on what was going on up in the front of VX 921, I might as well start here.

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:

  • Who was I competing against?
  • What prizes were the winners going to get?
  • What were the rules of competition (collaboration, research, etc.)?

    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 parallel slave processors friends sitting next to me. But eventually I moved to 2D and Mike moved to 2F (the guy in 3C was understandably busy anyway).

    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!

  • LinkReply

    From: (Anonymous)
    2009-06-24 07:22 pm (UTC)

    I enjoyed the grunt work

    Rest assured, I was happy to assist and enjoyed watching a master at work! I'm just proud to have been a part of the team!

    Thanks for letting me play along...

    Mike Barish
    Gadling/Freelance Writer
    Twitter: @mikebarish
    (Reply) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: motris
    2009-06-24 07:52 pm (UTC)
    I was not an opponent. I had initially been asked to be on your flight and work with you. I passed for a bunch of reasons, but having a normal job and quasi-normal sleep schedule that does not involve waking at 5 AM was part of it. So, I found it funny that both you and Mike Selinker contacted me yesterday as a potential ally for this contest, when my plan all along was to be sleeping.
    (Reply) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: onigame
    2009-06-25 12:37 am (UTC)
    I was definitely wondering about that when I saw your name mentioned in the press release. I mean, defeating Chaikin+Selinker, improbable. Defeating Chaikin+Selinker+Snyder, unthinkable!
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: selinker
    2009-06-25 11:19 am (UTC)
    We gave up on having outside help almost immediately upon boarding. I had one conversation with John Chaneski about a puzzle I already had figured out, but then realized I could not afford even to look at the chat area. The time pressure was that strong.
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: selinker
    2009-06-24 11:38 pm (UTC)

    There was certainly no indication that the creative challenge wasn't part of the airborne competition. Otherwise we wouldn't have skipped the last two questions to complete it with four minutes to go. I don't know what they were, so I don't know if we would have gotten them correct. But if we had skipped the creative step, and it really didn't count, who knows? I think it's safe to say your championship is in question, sir.

    To say nothing of getting hints from Ian. Sheesh.

    I think this clearly proves who are the true Lords of the Sky.


    (Reply) (Thread)
    From: tigupine
    2009-06-25 12:34 am (UTC)
    Back when Google did the Da Vinci Code contest, I realized that some douche was going to use a dummy account for a dry run and then use a bot to fill in the answers in three seconds on the real thing. That killed my motivation to compete (not that it really mattered, since there's no way I would have been in contention.) But I think I went into this game with a bit of a "nice guys finish last in Internet competitions, and anything possible should be admissible" attitude, which is quite unusual for me.

    I would have done the Cloud game in the wee hours of the morning anyway, and after I heard that there were no rules against sharing information and that there was an NPL home team assembling, I decided that I would do what I could to assist Wei-Hwa. So yeah, I was that douche this time. I figured that other "teams" would be doing the same thing, with all the networking going on. And I wasn't expecting the collaboration aboard the flight, either! This ended up being much more of a social game than I would have thought.
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: selinker
    2009-06-25 11:45 am (UTC)
    Look, I was flown down from Seattle to SFO by Virgin, so that alone made it not a fair competition in any event. Since Google stepped up and gave everyone on both planes the same prizes (due to connectivity issues, not this), nobody lost out on anything except bragging rights. I think those are reasonably in dispute, and Wei-Hwa and I will go back to being on really good puzzle teams that compete against each other. Nobody died here.

    I'm not mad at anybody at Google or Virgin either. Their staffs are just trying to make sure everyone has a great time and thinks good things about their services. And in that they succeeded admirably. This is not a violation of Mike Selinker's Rule Number Five of Awesome Events ("Fucking up your awesome event's ending is like having the best wedding in which the bride doesn't show up"). This was a great event in which I was honored to participate, and entertained the whole way.

    Edited at 2009-06-25 12:07 pm (UTC)
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    From: thedan
    2009-06-25 02:10 pm (UTC)
    > "Fucking up your awesome event's ending is like having the best wedding in which the bride doesn't show up"

    More cake for me!
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: tablesaw
    2009-06-26 07:36 am (UTC)
    Nobody died here.
    Well, except for the people on the plane who had family emergencies, perhaps.

    I'd looked at the rules and such before the event, and I came to much the conclusion that tigupine did about the contest as a whole. My expectation of the flight-on-flight competitions was that it was going to be more of a free-for-all crapshoot than a measured competition. But it was still kind of weird that one die flew off the table and the other one kind of rested against the wall of the table and refused to settle on a number. I'm glad to hear that Google/Virgin split the prizes.
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: tablesaw
    2009-06-24 11:55 pm (UTC)
    I'm sorry that we didn't know you were on our team until the end of the flight, collaboration definitely would have been more fun. (And for us, more active, since we got a fraction of the time to compete.) If you're interested in what was happening behind you, I wrote it up here.
    (Reply) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: selinker
    2009-06-25 11:47 am (UTC)
    That bites, Tony. This happened to our plane too, and it also was about how close you were to the front of the plane. Sometimes cutting edge technology doesn't hold up under a stress test like this. Doesn't make it fun to be part of it, though.

    Edited at 2009-06-25 12:08 pm (UTC)
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    From: serendipity_npl
    2009-06-25 04:20 am (UTC)

    Alexandra chiming in

    Cute poem, Wei-Hwa!

    Ian is right that somebody could keep practicing the game all day and then record a smoking score, but it's not quite as bad as he says.

    I took it twice, not entering competitively either time (you had to do the creative portion for that and I just looked at it and my eyes glazed).

    Surely, familiarity with the puzzle types helped the second time, but in fact you did have to solve all the puzzles again because the answers were built using different questions/trivia/whatever.

    I think the only way around the issue Ian mentioned would have been to start the game at a pre-announced time, and everybody would have had to play simultaneously. Sounds like the plane version worked that way, simply because the flight wasn't long enough for two passes through the entire game.

    I dreamed about the game overnight and then slept through my alarm, so I checked email with some trepidation this morning, Wei-Hwa, thinking I had let you down! I was relieved that I hadn't.

    By the way Tinhorn (Dave Shukan) did say he would help you and he was at his computer at 6 am but I think he didn't get added to your email list. So if you won and you're passing out free dinners, please add him to the list as having shown up for duty, ready to help :-)

    kirchwey ment

    (Reply) (Thread)
    From: serendipity_npl
    2009-06-25 04:29 am (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    PS You should watch Wei-Hwa's in flight interview with - Walter Cronkite (NOT). He was explaining a simple puzzle when she tuned out.


    [rough transcription]

    Eek! (=squeaky girly giggle)

    Wei-Hwa, you're making my head hurt!


    Oh look, we can see the clouds!


    [/rough transcription]

    Some of the puzzles were a bit ambiguous for my taste. There was one where it said "lead singer of Blondie on the left" and "author of Breakfast at Tiffany's on the right" - then "who's in the middle?" So I thought, Well, Harry + ? + Truman, they're looking for Harry Truman's middle name. As I recall, he had a middle initial but no middle name, so I carefully wrote "S" without a period, and got no credit :-(

    And, I solved the magic square and was all set to get my 2500 points but the instructions for entering them were ambiguous (to me at least): enter the 9 numbers in the 3x3 square top to bottom, left to right. Say the numbers were:

    1 2 3
    4 5 6
    7 8 9

    I entered 1 4 7 2 5 8 3 6 9. I didn't see until I retook the test that there were more instructions in the next cell over, giving an unambiguous example (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9). Since "top to bottom, left to right" didn't help me at all (is that different from "left to right, top to bottom?")... it would have been better just to give the example from the git-go.

    Still, it was fun and there were some nice puzzles in there.

    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: elusis
    2009-06-25 07:33 am (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    I wrote "Harry S Truman" thinking maybe they wanted the whole name and got no credit either.

    And I could not make the "change the formatting of a word and an image appears" thing work even though I'm sure I had the right idea in my head about what they wanted.

    I am apparently a n00b at GCalendar even though I (occasionally) use it - I tried to add the "people" referenced but they never approved me?

    (here via tablesaw
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    From: (Anonymous)
    2009-06-25 08:41 pm (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    Ah yes, formatting the word thing. I think on my first one the instructions were very clear and i tworked. On the second one, I got this idiotic story about a freaking blue scooter and some kid who didn't want a blue scooter, he wanted it to be the same color as Citron Lemon or some such thing. So, I figured I was supposed to change one of the words to yellow (but which yellow, the font palette had about six yellows to choose from, none named). Then which word to change? scooter (first instance?) scooter (second instance?) it? blue?

    not only was it unsolvable but it wasted beaucoup time.
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: elusis
    2009-06-25 08:45 pm (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    That was exactly the one I got, and I wasted tons of time changing various words to various hues of both yellow and green, with no results.
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    From: serendipity_npl
    2009-06-25 08:44 pm (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    Hmm, once I figured out (on my second pass through the game) how to add someone to Google Calendar, it worked fine. You go to Google Calendar, click "add," enter that person's email...I think there's a choice in there between clicking "add" and entering the email (private? friend? something like that). And then that person appears in your choices when you are in Google Calendar.

    There may have been something wonky about your permissions. Maybe you weren't logged in properly?
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: elusis
    2009-06-25 08:48 pm (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    That's exactly what I did. And I was logged in because my personal calendars were available, as were my RL friends'. :(

    I was assuming that, like Gchat, once you send an "add" request there has to be an "OK, you can add me" response, and perhaps the responder wasn't working. Who knows - it sure wasted a lot of my time.
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    From: talktodeb
    2009-06-25 08:11 am (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    "You're making my head hurt" was classic!
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: selinker
    2009-06-25 11:26 am (UTC)

    Re: Alexandra chiming in

    We got perfect scores on our third try. Well, Andrew did, because I obviously mistyped or omitted something and got a 34,000. So practice can indeed make perfect with a structure like this. Doesn't make it bad, just makes it not entirely pure.
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
    [User Picture]From: onigame
    2009-06-26 02:19 am (UTC)
    Oh, I discovered the identity of the news reporter who got the insight on the one puzzle we were stuck at.

    It's Xeni Jardin from Boingboing.

    (Reply) (Thread)
    From: (Anonymous)
    2009-06-26 07:00 pm (UTC)


    Wei-Hwa, imagine my suprise when I started reading about you on Boing Boing. Congratulations on all your achievements thus far.

    Nardo, Blair '93
    (Reply) (Thread)