July 9th, 2016

This month, some guy has been orchestrating a bunch of buyouts of Magic: The Gathering cards; specifically, legacy staples. MTGPrice did an interview with him. He also posted this video. I want to use generous assumptions and the information provided via these sources to estimate how much money one can make per year via the buyouts strategy. I will first estimate how much you can make per year via making non-buyout deals like the ones he talks about, then move on to discuss only the buyout strategy.

Facts from the interview and the video

  • Bitterblossom bought 65 copies at $5 sold 65 copies at $22.5
  • Moat bought 41 copies at $375
  • Rest in Peace bought 1000 copies at $0.7
  • Lions Eye Diamond bought 150 at $130
  • Buyouts in the last month: Lions Eye Diamond, Moat (2)

Assumptions I’ll be making

  • Bitterblossom bought in February 2008, sold May 2008
  • All 41 Moats can be sold over the course of 3 years for $655 (the current price)
  • All 150 Lion’s Eye Diamonds can be sold over the course of 3 years for $193 (the current price)
  • Rest in Peace bought at it’s most recent low in December 2014 and sold today for $4.55
  • Sales priced via outside websites incur at 15% penalty off these TCG Mid prices to account for shipping and selling at TCG low, etc…

Lets start by looking at the non-buyout deals.

This was clearly not a buyout, but we have some numbers so lets do some math. May 2008 was the first time Bitterblossom could be sold for the price listed, and he stated that be bought them when they were spoiled which is February 2008. He sold them for a grand total of $1462.5. We won’t apply the sell penalty here because we took his word on the sell price. He paid $325. This gain took 3 months. So he made $379.16 per month on this deal. That’s $4550 per year if you can make other deals that are similarly profitable.

Rest in Peace
This is also clearly not a buyout but again we can do some math. If he is able to out 1000 copies at today’s prices he makes grand total of $4550. We need to apply the 15% penalty so he really makes $3867.5. He paid $700, so net profit is 3167.5. This gain took 20 months. So that’s $158.375 a month, or $1900.5 a year. He thinks it will go up to $10, but I can’t tell how long that will take. He’s already had this investment for 20 months so its certainly a long term hold.

These are the deals he tells us about to make him look smart, but let’s be generous and say that the Rest in Peace deal, which makes far less, represents the average non-buyout deal he does. We don’t know the size of his bankroll but let’s assume he can afford to make 5 such bets a month, every month on continuing rotating basis. That would earn him $114,030 a year. It would imply bankroll of $42,000 per year until the deals start to come to fruition. We were being generous. If his average deal, including the bets that lose money is only half as good as this Rest in Peace deal then the same implied bankroll would only net $57,015. What are the chances the the second best deal he tells us about is 2x as good as his average deal? Pretty high.

Why these assumptions
In the video and the interview he clearly states that he is not running a pump and dump, but he instead plans to hold the cards long term. He indicates that he expects all staple reserve list cards to be bought out every 2 to 3 years going forward. Therefore, since he also indicates that he is doing this to support his family, we assume he takes this first available out.

I think he is correct in assuming that the total supply of reserve list cards is fixed. No more will ever be created and no large fraction will be lost. Every time one leaves the market, the price goes up by a fixed amount, assuming demand remains constant. We can estimate from his buyout of Lion’s Eye Diamonds (LED) that this is $0.42 per copy. That’s the current price minus the price he paid over the number of copies he bought. We neglect the intimidate spike price because that only exists because people are slow to react. Being fast to react as a seller doesn’t work because buyers are still slow to react, so we can ignore the spike in all cases.

His goal is to wait for another buyout in 2-3 years. Let’s assume the second buyout is the for same number of cards on the same supply curve. So if there was no organic growth between now and then, the price would rise to $256. Let’s assume, as he states in the video this is when he starts selling his LEDs. Each one he sells lowers the price by $0.42. So the last one he sells will net him $193, and the average one he sells is worth $225. Because we assumed the buyouts to be the same size, his selling totally undoes the effects of the second buyout, but because the second buyout occurs, he makes an extra $4,800 before any transaction penalties.

He also makes whatever organic growth occurs. That could be positive or negative. Everyone who owns a card makes the organic growth, all the time. It is true that if you want a large multiplier on this growth for a low supply card like LED that you must buy them out, simply because there aren’t enough cards.

Now, the person who does the second buyout gets screwed here. They don’t increase the price of the card at all. Well, it will increase slightly if their buyout is larger or decrease a bit if their buyout is smaller. But really for the second buyout person to make any real bank a third buyout will need to occur. I can not argue whether or not a second buyout will actually occur. Because that depends on the third buyout occurring and so on. However, they could occur because people with cash money often don’t understand economics. I will estimate two scenarios one where they occur and one where they do not.

Lions Eye Diamond
What has the organic growth been on this card for the past 3 years. Well, in January 2013 LED cost $90. Now, prior to the buyout it cost $130. The entire gain is due to the printing of eternal masters, which spiked all legacy staples on the reserve list. I’m counting this as organic growth because it was not bought out by one person. It was a general expectation that complimentary cards would come down in price and increase demand for LEDs. It turns out that no complimentary cards came down in price, because storm deck cards avoided the reprint in Eternal Masters.

Will there be another spike like this in the next three years? I don’t know, but I’d bet not. The similar situation is Modern Masters 1 and 2 and infect. I’ll assume there is another eternal masters release in the time frame. Will it include storm cards? I don’t think so. Modern Masters 1 did not include infect because it was too good for the draft format. The same thing was true of Modern Masters 2, so it again was not in the set. Storm was not included in Eternal Masters 1, presumably because it was not a good fit for the draft format. The same will be true for Eternal Masters 2. Therefore, its unlikely that storm cards will get a reprint. When the price of a good goes down, the price of complimentary goods goes up. However this didn’t happen, and I don’t think it will happen, so really I’d expect the natural growth of LED to be negative from a $130 price point, trending back down towards the $90 price point which held steady for years before Eternal Masters.

Lets say it would have only made it back down to $100, without the buyout. Because of his buyout though it won’t go back down that low. It will be $0.42*150 = $63 higher than it would otherwise be. So that’s $163. I used $193 in my assumption, which is larger than I really expect the price to be in three years by $30, which is the amount I expect the card to drop due to natural growth. We disagree on the expectations of natural growth, so its fair to assume zero natural growth.

We’re going to assume he sells all copies in 3 years at $193, so he makes $24,607.5 after the 15% penalty. He paid $19,500. So he makes a net profit of $5107.5 over three years. So his profit per year is $1702.5.

If we add in the effect of selling into the second buyout we add $4080 in post penalty profit, or $1360 per year.

The buyout price per card for this is a whopping $6.83, compared to LED’s $0.42. Again I’ll assume an equal sized buyout starting from the current price. That’s puts Moat up to $935. The average price from selling into the buyout is $795, so the extra earn from selling 41 copies into this buyout then is $5740.

The price on Moat has organically grown by $10 over the past 3 years. That’s not a good return on a $375 investment, so I’m ignoring it.

Assuming he sells all 41 copies for today’s current price at an average three years from the buyout date makes $22,826.75 after the 15% penalty. He paid $15,375, so he will net, with these assumptions $7451.75 on this deal in three years. So this is $2483.91 per year.

If we add in the extra earn from selling into a second buyout he makes an extra $4879 after the 15% penalty. This adds $1626 per year.

Per Year Profits
Let’s further assume that these deals are typical and he’s makes them a typical rate of 2 per month. First, lets average the profits and costs for these two deals. An average buyout deal costs $17,437.5 to execute, and results in profit per year of $2093 or by selling into a second equally sized buyout $3586. Two of these deals per month every month costs $418,500 in bankroll per year until they come to fruition. It results in a profit per year of $50,232 or $86,064 if he is able to sell into the next buyout. So the best case I’m giving him he makes a 20% annual rate of return, and my expected case is 12%.

So if he is to keep doing this at the current rate, neglecting the fact this there may not be 24 staple reserve list card per year to speculate on, he’ll have to put in $1.25 million before he makes his first, in the best case, $258,192. That profit covers 14 of the 24 buyouts that occur in year 4, assuming buyouts cost the same then as they do now, on average. We know he doesn’t have this kind of bankroll, as he discusses that this kind of bankroll is not present in magic.

So, he will likely make between 12-20% on his investment, unless his investment reduces the number of magic players who care about playing legacy (likely). That’s pretty good, if you can keep doing it (which is hard). My real point, however, is that he’s almost done. He can not single-handedly create a new normal where buyouts occur at the current rate. Clearly, others can contribute and create this new normal of monthly buyouts. At least until they run out of good cards to speculate on in this way.

Charter Schools

June 23rd, 2014

“Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” –Barney Frank

There seems to be a large argeement that children should be educated, forcibly if nessecary. There also seems to be an agreement that the community should fund that education through taxes. These are things we’ve clearly chosen to do together. We’ve also traditionally chosen to determine what and how children are taught together. However, based on a recent email thread at work, even ignoring religious issues, there seems to be little to no agreement in what or how children should be taught simple things like subtraction. This indicates that we should decouple what and how education occurs from how it is mandated and funded. This is the best argument for charter schools that I have never heard.

Tuva or Bust

February 16th, 2013

Spoliers Don’t read any of this if you want to try and solve Tuva or Bust! Tuva or Bust started as an idea purposed by Rob for a shell/sub-meta for the Feynman Round:

You get a page full of unlabeled bubbles connected by unlabeled arrows (with a small box in them where a one-letter label could go). The arrows form a tree pointing inward to the single labeled bubble, “Tannu Tuva”. You also get a bank of 26 possible relations between current and historical countries of the 20th century, such as “has a land border with”, “gained independence from”, “occupied by”, “fought a war against”, “disputes territory with”, “has the same head of state as”… The labels fall into rows that can be filled by the puzzle answers. The goal is to figure out the only possible mapping from relations to letters, and therefore to figure out the set of starting points (leaf nodes) that get you to the People’s Republic of Tannu Tuva, and read their initials across the page.

First AttemptIn March I took on the role of constructing an example puzzle with Rob’s idea.
I never quite understood the “figure out the set of starting points (leaf nodes) that get you to the People’s Republic of Tannu Tuva, and read their initials across the page” part of Rob’s idea. I figured that if there a leaf nodes that don’t get you to Tuva, then it will be obvious which ones those are because they will be disjoint. That might even make them impossible to solve. So my constructions abandoned the concept of a tree all together and just use a graph. Pictured is my first attempt; The rules are specified by number in this google doc. I used numbers because they can be arbitrarily assigned to letters in order to spell nice words. One thing to notice is that this puzzle does not have an extraction mechanism, it doesn’t have an answer.

Tuva or Bust Draft 2The next draft actually has an extraction mechanism. If the circle has a number you take the Nth letter of the country, where N is that number. It forms a circle, but you can figure out where it starts. This draft should resolve to YOU JUST ASK ME, which is play on “You Just Ask Them,” a chapter from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. I think there is an error in it though. The key innovation in this version, other than an extraction mechanism is the colored ribbons which allow more flexibility in the graph layout while still spelling words with the relations. This allows a more complicated graph. In this case the two colors don’t mean anything, but the idea of having multiple colors will become important.

Shortly after I presented this work, the team moved away from the idea of having shell-metas in this round because the idea for the super-meta for the round was taking shape and it didn’t need shell-metas to work. So, I took this puzzle idea, and with, my editor Darby’s help we managed to covert this idea from a shell-meta, which takes input answers, to a regular puzzle, which does not. My first idea for this was to add a step to the start of the puzzle, which would basically provide the input answers, something like a word search or cryptic clues.

There were two key innovations that made this puzzle what it became. The first one is that Darby had the idea that we could eliminate the clunky extraction (of indexing in some circles) if the answer (or a clue phrase for the answer) were spelled out in a ribbon. The second one is that we should provide the alphabet mapping instead of solving for that while solving the logic puzzle. We didn’t know this yet, but the puzzle here doesn’t have very many constraints, which makes it quite hard to solve. The added constraint of having to find the alphabet mapping was just too much. I constructed a version that solved to BENOISY where the other letters that were not in a line had no meaning or pattern, seen below.

Be Nosiy Version

We didn’t really like the way this reduced the size of the graph, and we thought that the random letters would be too hard to figure out. After this version we brought back the ribbon concept. We decided to go with spelling out the actual answer RENAMES in a green ribbon and then spelling “Whatever Happened to Tannu Tuva,” the most famous Feynman quote about Tuva with the rest of the relationships in blue ribbons. This added a constraint in that once you figured out the quote you’d really only have to solve half of the logic puzzle. We thought about various methods for cluing the quote. At first we didn’t clue it at all. This version (below) goes with this set of instructions.

First Quote Version

This version was put into test solving. Our solver, Adam, did a lot of work to come up with some good lists of countries for each rule, but we learned some of the lists we had been using were not as canonical as we though. He didn’t seem interested in solving the logic puzzle though.

What would it take to throw all the possible answers into a program to search for the answer? A lot of programming time, and unless the possibilities get cut down really quickly, the run time’ll be too high.

Back-of-the-envelope calculation: 200 countries in the world, so 40000 pairs. About 1000 pairs allowed by each unlabeled two-way arrow, so each two-way arrow restricts by a factor of 1/40. One-way arrows are phrased to assign a unique partner to each country, and there are 5 unrestricted ones of them, so also about a factor of 1/40. So the amount of constrainedness is about (1/40)^{27} and the number of possible assignments of countries is (200}^{26}, so with high probability either I’m missing some constraint or the arrows are arranged really, really carefully so this configuration is uniquely solvable. There are only about two triangles, which the same back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate should be way underconstrained, and one four-cycle containing Tuva.

Most of the constraints really do seem to be one-way arrows. I really don’t feel like wading through all the ambiguities in A, H, and W:
A, H, and W are orderings of countries by things with large measurement error and very small differences between the bottom countries. Different measures or people with very slightly different criteria and get slightly different results and quite different orders, and slight changes by the time hunt starts are likely to permute the order again. (And they do get different orders: the first three google results for “list of countries by population” for A have different results

Truth be told we had never proven the graph was uniquely solvable. We had not proven that you couldn’t fill in a different set of countries in a way that followed the directedness of the arrows. Proving that seemed really hard, but we were pretty confidant that the relationships out from Tuva were severely restricted and that from there it would be really difficult to go astray. We would not have been surprised if the whole graph could be solved in multiple ways, but we were pretty sure if the center circle had to be Tuva then it was unique, if you used the right lists.

One thing I learned from this report that I didn’t realize at first that the directedness of the arrows was a huge constraint. Having two kinds of arrows partitioned the rules set and reduced the complexity. When I decided we needed to have two kinds of arrows, that decision was made on a different basis. It was made on the basis that there were interesting rules for each type of arrow and not enough rules of any one arrow type to cover the alphabet. I could have left the directedness of the arrows ambiguous, but that seemed hard and evil on the face of it. So I didn’t want to do that. But What I hadn’t realized is how much power giving away direction gave the solvers. It turns out the power was used for good by making the puzzle easier to construct and easier to solve.

My number one rule when constructing was that I could only use an arrow between two countries if it was the only arrow of that directedness that could be drawn between those two countries. That is, the rule used must be unique in order to to specify a unique letter, which is a property we certainly wanted. For example I couldn’t draw a directed arrow from USA to Canada because that could be filled by either the “Longest Border With” rule or the “Immediately Larger in Total Land Area” rule. However, I could (and did) draw the reverse arrow because from Canada to USA also satisfies the “Longest Border With” rule, but it is the wrong direction for the land area rule. Similarly you can’t draw a bidirectional arrow between Tuvalu and United Kingdom because it could be either “Shares the Same Head of State” or “Both have a Cristian Official State Religion.” That is why there is a 4 cycle with the “Same Head of State” rule. Another area of constraint when constructing was ambiguity. It is unclear if the UK has an Cristian official state religion or not, for instance. England does, but the rest of the UK does not. So there is an ambiguous edge, an edge that I can not use, but it still causes me to not be able to use any other rule which would draw an edge that could be confused with it. It turns out that my construction spreadsheet was not capable of representing these rules and therefore always had to be tweaked by hand.

The results from this solve were many. The large changes were:

  • We fixed a bunch of rules, and decided to use the CIA World Factbook as our canonical source whenever one was needed
  • I actually had to come up with a whole new layout and letter assignment due to the changes incurred from using a different cannonical source. This took a huge amount of time and I even learned to use R to optimize graph layouts. However the graph for this puzzle is quite far from being one dimensional.
  • We included “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?” as flavor text
  • We fixed the wording on lots of rules to change tenses and provide or remove clarifying adjectives

This time there was a long wait for someone to fact check the puzzle. They came up with a number of issues, which required that I find hard eveidence to support the claims I was making. For example:

“The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. Although the Church of Tuvalu is by law the state church, this status has few ramifications other than to afford it “the privilege of performing special services on major national events.” The constitution provides for separation of church and state.”

The checker also found that Japan and India hand swapped positions on the GDP list and the arrow for them needed to be reversed. I managed to do this in a photo editor instead of redrawing the solution. After this check we arrived at what would be the final solution.

Hand Drawn Final Version

In this round of testsolving, tons of people looked at the puzzle. They came up with really great lists of countries for each rule, but no one could fill in the graph. In this version we gave away the text for the blue arrows as the flavor text of the puzzle. No research was required. All you had to do, the ahha was that the given quote fits in the boxes. You can figure this out right off the bat from a directedness and length argument. Eventually our best logic puzzler, Derek, figured this out. In his report he said:

It works, and it’ll keep a team busy, but I guess I ended up disappointed after spending a few hours thinking the puzzle was something different (ie, a logic puzzle) than it was. The “aha!” was more annoying than exciting. Many of the rules weren’t used, and the answer didn’t make much sense in context. Oh well.

We didn’t like the sound of that. We wanted a puzzle that was lots more fun than that. We wanted the logic puzzle that he also had wanted. We made two changes to make this happen. First we removed the quote from the flavor text and added a hint at the Tuva quote saying, “Feynman said it best.” Second, we added a list of countries which were the only ones that could appear in the puzzle. This made things much more constrained. You could still find the quote and make the directedness and length argument to start with, but it wasn’t the only ahha, you could also just do the logic puzzle. We test solved this, but we allowed solvers to use the previously compiled lists. They were able to easily pair down those lists based on the countries they were now allowed to use. This cleared up a lot of confusion. For instance, Bhutan is not the most obvious Buddhist country, that distiction falls to Cambodia. However, Cambodia is a dead end with the rules we have. You can get the Thailand from it, but from there you can’t get to anywhere great. Since Cambodia was not on the allowed list, finally no one was making that mistake anymore. I didn’t find this out until discussing the puzzle with solvers after the hunt, but this also reduced the work load to find the data. Since you could look up each country and then check off the rules that it could or couldn’t be used with.

As a side note, Cambodia and Bhutan were both in the running to become a member of the UN security council effective in time for me to use that fact in the puzzle. Sadly they were both up against South Korea, and South Korea won the seat. I had to wait for this election to be over in mid October before I could construct the final version. For a week or so I was UNSC elections junkie, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it.

South Korea did end up appearing in the list of allowed countries, but not because of its UNSC seat. I came up with the list of allowed countries by making sure that you could use every rule at least once. I tried to choose countries which satisfied more than one rule with other countries on the list. For instance Iran and North Korea had to make the list because they are the two unambiguous “Axis of Evil” countries left, since Iraq might not be considered the same country that was in the Axis anymore since it has a new regime. Then South Korea must appear because of the “DMZ” rule. The one rule which doesn’t have any countries to satisfy it is the “Not Full Member of the UN” rule for letter K. This rule is so tricky, because most nations that aren’t full members are not considered sovereign by at least one nation, for example Taiwan. The only country which everyone recognizes as sovereign that’s not a full member is the Vatican. Randall Munroe, commented to me at an event after the hunt, that he couldn’t find any of the listed countries that fit this rule. I told him that it was by design because the rule is so unwieldly. The truth is the rule is much eaiser when you get to define the list of countries, but since we added that so late in the process, I just ignored it. Plus, it is nice if you figure out it can’t be used, then you can pretend its not there, which makes the puzzle a little easier.

After most of the other puzzles in the hunt had been solved, testers finally came back and proved that the new version, with the list, was solvable, and more fun that the previous one. The solvers’ only comment was that we should replace the hand drawn picture. Mike Yi was able to turn my hand drawn version into the one you see in the puzzle. It is mostly exactly the same, but he did reroute some lines which improved the look. Overall I was proud how this puzzle turned out. Randall called it one of his favorites, which made me quite satisfied of a job well done. I think the development of this puzzle is a good lesson in how a puzzle that started off way too hard can made much easier while also being made much more fun. It did take 3 test solving iterations to do that, which was a lot of effort by many people on the team. We only had time for that because this idea was first drafted in March. If more of our puzzles had the time to iterate like this, I think we’d have had a much shorter, easier, and more fun hunt.

Blizzard 2013

February 11th, 2013

On Wednesday night one of my ski buddies suggested we should leave Thursday night after work because Boston was supposed to get a lot of snow on Friday. As Thursday evening arrived, the rest of the group seemed to come to the same conclusion, so we left town. About 3 (of 4) hours into the drive I finally got word via e-mail that my work would be closed due to the blizzard on Friday. I’d predicted this was going to happen, but I was prepared to spend a vacation day if it didn’t. In Vermont at the house we’d gotten ~2 inches when we woke up at 7am on Friday morning. We decided that we probably couldn’t make it to/from the mountain, even for a half day of skiing since our cars are not equipped with snow tires or all wheel drive. We spent the day playing Dominion and Settlers of Catan. We did ski on Saturday and Sunday. The conditions were pretty good on the runs that had a base of man made snow, but the runs without that base still had alternating ice and plants sticking up through the powder.

Since I wasn’t here, I don’t have a lot of great pictures of the snow, but since some of you, Aunt Kathy, have been asking, here are the some of the best shots from the people who do, the Universal Hub blog.

My one regret from not being in Boston for the storm is that I really do wish I could have skied Beacon Hill.

Terrier Parking

February 9th, 2013

Terrier Parking is the first puzzle idea that I came up with for the hunt. You see I really love geography and map based puzzles, but I think the drawing letters on a map, as exemplified by Spoiler So Good They Named It Hull, is a horrible, inelegant way to do an extraction. More on that when we get to that puzzle. So, I was looking for an elegant way to extract an answer from a map based puzzle that was local to Boston/Cambridge. There are of course a number of ways to do that.

I found my answer while I was trying to find some lunch on the Boston University campus. I walked past a parking lot and noticed that it had a name, but it also was lettered, in this case ‘N’. I came up with an idea where I would take pictures around town that featured clocks, or had a readable watch in the foreground. Your goal would be to identify the location of the pictures. The pictures would be matched by the hour shown on the clock, and the vector from the first of the two pictures to the second would roughly match the direction of the hour hand on an analog clock at the given hour. The minute hand could encode some kind of hint using the first 26 minutes of the hour. Each vector between the two images, would happen to cross through exactly one BU parking lot.

This was my first idea. It was May, and I was excited, but, David, my editor was mostly confused. He did suggest that it’d be cool if there was a “canonical set of clocks in the area” we could use, but I certainly couldn’t find any. In July he taught me the first thing I needed to know about writing a puzzle:

I think we can do better. It doesn’t really have much meat to it yet – you look up the things and read off the answer.

I’m also worried that the parking lots are sort of randomly stuck in now. When you get the puzzle, it is a clock puzzle. You go ahead doing clock things, and eventually you get some lines. And then you’re supposed to notice that the lines all contain BU parking lots – I think that will either be underclued, or we’ll clue it in some inelegant way (flavor text or something). It would be better if we could have parking lots and/or BU be involved from the beginning

Other than that we were going to have high standards for our puzzles, the key takeaway was that a puzzle needs to be cohesive. If you start with clocks you should end with clocks, or at least a twist on clocks. I then had another idea. This idea wasn’t great but it was more cohesive in that it started with cars and ended with parking lots.

Instead of a clock/watch in each picture we can include a specific kind of car… Now they must identify the car and the location from the photos. Locations that are paired have the same car associated with them, this is how you pair the locations to form the lines. The read off order is provided by the model year of the car. The oldest model year is the first letter, then so on towards the future. If we’re lucky we can spell something like BUPARKINGLOT with our model names.

I cited three puzzles I’d worked on in past years, Panorama, Stand, Soooo Cute! that were similar to the ideas I’d presented. But, David didn’t like the idea, saying:

I think that the first part should be very interesting; enough to be a puzzle on its own, almost, since the second step is just an extraction. I think that there’s not enough substance if it’s just “identify pictures of cars and match identical pairs.”

From what I can gather from our wiki, Stand appears to be a pretty bland ISIS puzzle, and I can’t make heads or tails of how Panorama worked. I claim that Sooo Cute! was also pretty ISIS-ish. I think we can do better than all of those, if we can think of a really creative, non-ISIS first part *i.e. not “just identify everything and see which match”).

So I also learned the second thing I needed to know about writing puzzles. ISIS stands for Index Sort Index Sort, which, I’ll freely admit is an apt description of my ideas thus far. Now, Stand is a puzzle that I described to people many times when describing what Mystery Hunt is, and why it is fun. It provided me with the best story of my 2012 hunt experience, except for winning of course. It did that while being a straightforward ISIS puzzle, so that’s not a terrible thing, but as I learned, it’s not a great thing.

So with those ideas shot down, I began a month plus of sitting around trying to think of a way to do something with BU that would end up with points on a map so I could use the parking lots. I was also hoping to wait for our standards of what makes a good puzzle to drop a bit. On September 5th I posted the idea that actually made it into the hunt.

I’m not going to black out the spoilers here, because as the author of this puzzle, I’m going to recommend that you don’t bother to solve it. It takes a while do the data lookup, which is fine for Mystery Hunt, but you probably have better things to do with your time. Also, once the BU Spring 2013 Semester is over, the puzzle will be unsolvable.

The puzzle provides 8 class schedules for students at BU, one for each letter in the answer. Each schedule contains 4 courses, 2 red and 2 white. However, the schedule also includes all the labs and discussion sections for those courses as if you were actually taking them. The classes however, are not identified by their numbers, instead they are presented with:

  • A GPS Coordinate that looks like 42.348 420, -71.101 601. This you soon discover corresponds to the building in which the class occurs.
  • The name of the lecturer for that class
  • The room in which the class occurs.

This information, when combined with the times that you get from the fact that you’re given a schedule, vastly over defines a course at BU. All you really need to define a course is the lecturer and the time, as the lecturer can only be in one place at once.

The clues for the next step are all in the funky looking GPS coordinate. For starters there are red and white classes and the 42 and -71 are read and white. They are outlined so they can be read on both red and white classes. Then there is the space separating the decimal part of the coordinate into two 3 digit parts.

What you’re supposed to do is use the 2 red classes from a latitude and the 2 white classes to form a longitude. To do so, concatenate the 3 digit courses together with the appropriate colored whole number part. You can do this in 2 ways as the order of the two courses is not defined at all. The GPS coordinates of the buildings at BU will have similar higher order digits as the parking lots, so this will help you figure out the order. However, if you do it correctly you’ll get a point that is in a BU parking lot. This is confirmed as the correct pairing by the title of the puzzle. Then you read off the letters of the parking lots in the order of the schedules. See the solution for a fancy table that does all this work for you!

We tried a couple different versions of the puzzle. Only the last two versions included the lecturer. It turns out the BU website is much easier to search if you have the lecturer, and this reduced the data lookup time by half or more. Prior to their inclusion you pretty much had to write a website scraper to get the data you needed.

We also went back and forth a couple times on how much of the GPS Coordinate cluing to do. Our first successful test solver thought we made it too easy, but when we tried it again without that info, no one solved it, so in the end we used all the cluing we had come up with. Given the overall difficulty of the hunt I’m glad we went with as much cluing as possible, so as to not add to the length/difficulty problems too much.

Richard Feynman Round

February 2nd, 2013

Sadly, it seems that coming back from the dead is more trouble than it is worth for Richard Feynman to help out is alma matter. Maybe he’ll be convinced if we can solve his 25 home work problems and then ace the take home final exam. I wrote 3 puzzles in the Feynman round, help out on another one, and worked on test solving 3 more. Each of the three I wrote will get its own write up. They are:

So Good They Named It Hull

So Good They Named It Hull is the puzzle that I helped with. I am actually not a huge fan of it, but that is mostly because I don’t like the extraction method they used, other than that it is a clever idea, and certainly had fun helping.

Spoiler The puzzle is a travel log with clues for each city/town visited. It comes in 10 paragraphs each paragraph except the first also clues a year. The aha is that each clue describes a city/town in both England and New England with the same name. The extraction is drawing letters on the overlaid map of England and New England, so the first paragraph without a year’s job is to clue how to do the overlay (line up Chester and Glastonbury with Chester and Glastonbury on the other map). The first paragraph also clues how to change countries with the line “every time I wake up, I’m in a whole other country!” The remaining 9 paragraphs each draw one letter of the answer on the map.

I was added to the puzzle on the night of the puzzle writing deadline to help them come up with interesting clues. It turns out they had to use a lot of small towns. The clues I particularly enjoy are:

  • the place whose motto is “Post tot naufragia portus, nunc duo milia a mari”.
  • town that was founded near Mt. Grace in 1739, and destroyed in a great fire in 1694
  • to see Hammond Castle and the cathedral where they filmed Harry Potter.
  • home of Thatcher, Newton, Howe, Dunbar and Leavitt

Text Adventure

I worked on test solving Text Adventure at the first retreat we took together as a team. We got a big ski house in Vermont in October. It is closer to Boston than where I actually go skiing in Vermont by about an hour’s drive. This is a fun iterative puzzle!

Spoiler As always in a text adventure game what you need to do here is draw a map. It turns out this map is a Feynman diagram (link). I believe that the wikipedia page on the topic was improved in order to make this puzzle easier. That said I never understood the extraction; I just drew the map, which was lots of fun!

Jigsaw Puzzle

What puzzle hunt would be complete without an actual Jigsaw Puzzle. The original idea was to get an actual jigsaw puzzle made for this, but that turned out to be really expensive. Instead we manually cut each puzzle out using a paper cutter. Each puzzle involved cutting 40 some sheets in a particular pattern. I cut a good 6 or 7 of these in the week before hunt, which took many mindless hours. Mindless hours were actually kind of nice around then!

Not only did I cut up this puzzle, I also test solved it. It took about 5 sages about 7 hours to put together enough of the puzzle to solve it. It was fun and relaxing! We didn’t come close to putting together the whole puzzle, as that would have taken a lot more time.

Spoiler The way this works is that there are 49 images which each make their own 49 piece puzzle. Each puzzle is made of pieces of the same shapes, but the shapes are sometimes rotationally symmetric so it is still hard to figure out where they all go. However, each of the 49 puzzles is missing exactly 1 piece. No two puzzles are missing the same piece. The missing piece has some letters on it. You figure out the letters from context or from finding the local-to-MIT location where the photo was taken. You order the letters left to right top to bottom by the place the pieces are missing from in order to create a 50th image which is full of letters. The letters spell out a clue phrase.

>The hardest part of test solving this puzzle is that only 2 of the solvers were unspoiled on the answer to the clue phrase as the phrase has been previously tested absent from the rest of the puzzle on most of us. Congratulations to my room mate Post for figuring this one out!

Space Monkey Mafia

Space Monkey Mafia is a fun puzzle. It comes with a bunch of sheet music.

Spoiler The sheet music from a number of songs is all sorted together by note. I have no idea how you un-sort that back into songs, as that was done when I started on the puzzle. Each song includes a list of things, for example My Favorite Things or We Didn’t Start the Fire. Space Monkey Mafia is an item in the list from the latter. However, one item from the list is missing! It turns out you index the number of the missing item in the list, into the list from The Elements song by Tom Lehrer link, which happens to be set to the music of I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General by Arthur Sullivan link. This is clued by the by line on the sheet music. You order the elements by the time signatures on the last page. I got pretty tired of using the periodic table while test solving, but I really enjoyed this novel method of using it! This spells out SING ABOUT COINS, which is not the answer to the puzzle.

This is what is termed a “creativity” puzzle. What you do next is call HQ and schedule an appointment to perform a song about coins. When you finish the song you get the actual answer to the puzzle on a slip of paper. This is also an example of a puzzle with a totally unconstrained movable answer.

Danny Ocean Round

February 2nd, 2013


Of course the easiest way to get Danny Ocean’s help is to simply ask for it. We’ll need him first to recruit the rest of the team. But, Alyssa asked him, and he turned us down! It seems he is too busy heisting from six casino’s at once.

In the Danny Ocean round there are 11 puzzles, one for each thief from Oceans’ Eleven. Each thief puzzle is connected to 2 or 3 casinos, and the casinos are the six which Danny’s team plans to heist. Each casino is also a puzzle, but casino puzzles are unlocked in stages, one stage for each associated thief puzzle that you solve. In the unlocked form, all of the stages that exist are available and they have been combined together for easy use. We did prove that some of these puzzles could be solved without all the their stages. Spoiler The meta for the round involves which thiefs go which which casinos. I test solved on a number of puzzles in this round, and I participated in writing one of them.


stratosphere-nightStratosphere is the puzzle that I helped write. It is the easiest of the casino puzzles. In fact I suggest that you give Stratosphere a try.

This puzzle is the 3rd attempt at a puzzle for this slot. The first puzzle in this slot was reworked and moved to a different round. It is now called I Can See for Miles, and it is one of my favorite puzzles in the hunt. I’ll cover I Can See for Miles in more detail when I cover the first puzzle I wrote for the hunt, Terrier Parking, which is in the Richard Feynman Round. I’m not sure exactly why I Can See for Miles was kicked out of this slot, but my assumption is that it could not be solved without all of the parts.

The second puzzle in this slot was also really cool. This puzzle seems to involve GPS, this is the actual puzzle. Before you try to solve it, know that we removed it because our Manic Sages test solvers were not able to solve it. However, I intend to still try, as I think this is the kind of thing some people at work would expect for me to be able to do since I am in charge the GPS receivers on all the planes and I do a lot of work with coordinate transforms, which seems like the things needed to solve this puzzle. I didn’t work on this one during test solving because I was busy, other people had already written programs to work on it, and I was worried that even if I did solve it, it would be because of my extensive domain specific knowledge, which doesn’t prove it is solvable.

By the time the team decided that the GPS puzzle had failed, there was about a week left before hunt. Catherine, our team lead, asked if anyone had any ideas for something Stratosphere themed. I wanted to try do something themed around the roller coaster or the other rides on top of the Stratosphere, so I was drafted. On Skype and in person Reuben, Sean, Halimeda and I brainstormed for about 2 hours. We covered a large number of topics, from the roller coaster, to trying to introduce the concept of Mountain Peak Prominence to buildings and skylines, to movies about space travel, to something about the Red Bull space jump, to something else with GPS. We picked two ideas and worked on them in groups of 2 for about 4 hours. Our first goal was to combine these our two best ideas, but we decided they were incompatible in a rather important way. In the end the idea I was working on didn’t make it into the puzzle, but I did help construct the other idea.

My favorite clues that appear in the puzzle are:

  • Gulf Shores becomes the fifth jurisdiction in Canada to legalize same-sex marriage
  • Pedestal of the historic Outer Banks Statue of Liberty monument reopens to visitors after three years
  • Dodgers win World Series after 9-3 win over White Sox in Pensacola
  • The Who plays at the Woodstock Music Festival in New Orleans

I really feel like my parents should be able to figure out what is going on with these clues, especially that last one.

Spoiler Each clue in this puzzle involves an event which happened on a specific date and a place where that event did not occur. However, there was an event that occurred in that place on that date, and that event was a hurricane making landfall. The clues I gave resolve to Ivan, Alex, Irene (1959), and Camille. When you resolve the clues for each of the 4 pieces of this puzzle and read down the first letter of the hurricane names you get STEPHEN, WILLIAM, DANIEL, and ALEC. These are the first names of the four BALDWIN brothers, which is the answer.


Break out your audio tools for Megamix. I hope to eventually have a post which does a deep dive into the many, many music puzzles in this year’s hunt, and this one is certainly a doozy. This puzzle remained more than 90% done but unsolved for months on end. First they changed the presentation to clue better, but that didn’t help much. No one cracked the code until they added the reference to “DJ Roy” to the flavor text. Spolier The answer to this one is pretty satisfying for star trek fans.

Turnary Reasoning

I will always refer to Turnary Reasoning as “the other magic puzzle.” I test solved a version of this one. I’m no good a chess, but I found the magic part of this to pretty interesting. Although that opinion was not shared by at least one solver, who tweeted I didn’t like the first #MTG puzzle. I’m liking the second better so far… #mysteryhunt. In that tweet, this is the first puzzle, because the second one, Magic: The Tappening) occurs in the final round of the hunt.

You Should Be Listening

I had nothing to do with writing or solving You Should Be Listening. However, to make sure that nothing in this puzzle could be found via reverse image search, each image in the puzzle was hand colored with colored pencils. I colored frame seven, reproduced on the left below. Spoiler It is supposed to resemble the image on the right, but with specific different characters pictured.


I worked with Adam to prove that Aria is solvable with all of the parts. It wasn’t too hard, but I was pretty bad at it compared to Adam. He could solve them about twice as fast as me, but I feel like I got a little better. Spoiler I was disappointed when all the meta-data I looked up for each Aria turned out to be useless. The answer to this puzzle is TALLADEGA. When I found that out I was pretty disappointed that NASCAR didn’t feature in this puzzle.

Caesar’s Palace

I worked on the extraction part of this puzzle and was wholly unsuccessful. Unsurprisingly the Caesar’s Palace puzzle is all about Caesar Ciphers. So in the extraction step I wrote a macro for the google doc we were solving in that made it easy for us to Caesar Cipher every text we had by every amount we had. That would have worked too if the actual extraction were not slightly more clever than that.

Mystery Hunt 2013

January 31st, 2013

One of the many reasons why my blog has been largely silent this past year, is because, as a member of the Manic Sages, I spent a large portion of my time toiling away in secret working on the 2013 MIT Mystery Hunt. Now that hunt is over, I can tell that story, both because I have free time in my life back and the secrets are secret no longer. Of course, this adventure all started when the Manic Sages won the Borbonicus and Bodley, producers themed mystery hunt written by Codex. We found the coin on Saturday, January 14th, at 10:27 PM. Our key take away from this was that the hunt we won was too short.

Seeing as our take-away was that hunt had become, in our minds, too easy, it was only logical that the hunt I spent the last year working on turned out to be the longest, and most likely the hardest, MIT Mystery Hunt ever! Of course, in keeping with the Producers theme of the hunt we won, we did this mostly by accident. My theories on how we managed to mis-underestimate our hunt will get its own post. The goal of this post is to set the stage and describe the plot of the 2013 Mystery Hunt and how it all went together in the end.

The full ~5 minute kickoff of the 2013 MIT Mystery Hunt is available on You Tube, but I will summarize. The Manic Sages, after winning the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt, again in keeping with the Producers theme mortgaged the coin and flew to Aruba. This is how the Enigma Valley Investment and Loan or EVIL came to own Mystery Hunt. Kickoff begins with a brief intro from the President of Enigma Valley, Mr. Ben Oisy, running a brief question and answer session for all of the new account holders (teams). You see, EVIL has “converted [each team’s] probabilistic holdings in the coin into a fractional share at dramatically appreciated value.” He goes on to describe that a “no withdraw clause” allows EVIL to provide “extensive protection against financial errors you may make,” among other benefits. He drones on, but his slides, his slides appear to have been hacked. Once his presentation is over Alyssa P. Hacker sneaks into the auditorium and tells the teams that she has a plan! She has contracted with the Institute for Heist Training Facilitation and Planning or IHTFP. With IHTFP and the team’s help she plans to conduct a brilliant heist and steal the coin back from EVIL’s vault. As a first step she’s begun to hack into EVIL’s servers, go help her finish the job!

The hunt begins on Enigma Valley’s website, where Alyssa has uncovered some puzzling files. The below image links to the actual enigmavalley.com site where you can go take a look at the puzzles. There are 7 puzzles in this round and they are all supposed to be pretty easy. If you’re at all interested you should go check them out before you encounter spoilers on their answers below. Be sure to click on the puzzle and not the intercepted memo, as the memo is a spoiler, that unlocks when you solve the puzzle. Solutions are available under status on the upper right. This round should take a team of 3-6 inexperienced solvers less than 8 hours to complete. I actually plan to solve all of these myself, although I did test solve one of them in an earlier revision. It took the best MIT Mystery Hunt teams about an hour. Actually, full solving stats are available.

Enigma Valley Investment & Loan

Spoilers Start Here

Each puzzle in the opening round has an answer which is the name of someone the bank hired to help them build an impenetrable vault. When you solve the puzzle, you get to read an intercepted memo from the EVIL bank president instructing his minions to hire the person whose name you just found. There is a meta puzzle for this round as well, which is themed as a password reminder file for the bank president. When you solve this puzzle, you’ve gained complete access to the bank’s website! At this point Alyssa, via an e-mail, suggests that you should recruit the people who helped design the bank’s vault to help you break in.

From here you move to coinheist.com where IHTFP will track your progress recruiting each designer to be part of your heist team. When you solve a meta in a round, you find a reason why that person should be mad at EVIL and join your team. These are usually bad puns. Had we had a James Bond round, the answer would have been BOND LOOSES OO RATING (or Bond looses double O Raiting). The rejected Jackie Chan round’s answer was to be something about a DRUNKEN MASTERCARD. You then learn that the person you’ve recruited has given the plans from the design of their Obstacle/Trap to IHTFP, and IHTFP has built their design. Your team schedules an appointment to come practice getting through the trap at the IHTFP Training Center. I’ll have a whole post on traps at some point.

Once you complete 5 of the 6 rounds, IHTFP informs you that they have plans for the both of the final two traps you need. This was done to make hunt end faster. Once you solve both of those traps you go on the runaround, the final part of the hunt. I’ll cover the runaround in the traps post, because, guess what, those plans were pretty darn close, but they were not close enough. The bank has modified the traps to make them more difficult than the designers designed them to be.

Things the Campaigns Can’t Say

October 24th, 2012

Romney blasted President Obama in the last debate for “what [he’s] called an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.” Romney clarified what he means by apology tour later, stating, “the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq… And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations.” Let’s ignore the fact that when President Obama said, “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” he was actually in France and talking about Europe. Let us assume that he did apologize for America’s actions on Arabic TV. Does Romney remember what president Bush did? Bush was dismissive and derisive over other nations and certainly never did America’s popularity in the world any favors. Also, Bush delivered Iraq an unlitmatium leading to war in 2003. If an unlitmatium to Iraq is not dictating to other nations, then I don’t know what is. In 2008 one of President Obama’s strengths was that he would fix American’s foreign policy. Bush did so much damage to our relationships worldwide that a global apology tour was demanded by the circumstances! It’s actually too bad President Obama didn’t go on one, at least out side of Europe.

In the second debate Romney said “I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you’re going to get,” while describing that President Obama would deliver “a repeat of the last four years. We just can’t afford four more years like the last four years.” The repeat of the last four years, of course, is not correct, for a variety of reasons, but I do think Romney hit the nail on the head with the first part. “I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you’re going to get.” The same quote certainly can not be said about Romney. Romney’s policies have been all over the map. They change day to day, place to place, and it seems like sometimes he makes them up during the debate. There is no telling what policy’s he’d actually enact if he were President.

Arduino: Day 1

October 11th, 2012

Part of my Halloween costume requires an micro controller to display a pattern on a led light strip. The light strip and the Arduino Uno micro controller I got to control it arrived today. In the span of about an hour I was able to:

  1. Borrow a USB A to B cable from my room mate as apparently I don’t own one.
  2. Find and follow this guide to working Arduino on Gentoo
  3. Install 16GB more ram while I was rebooting after making the kernel changes required in that guide, for a total of 23.50 Gigabytes of ram on the development system, which is also brand new.
  4. Build the circuit for the basic blink code
  5. Build and upload the basic blink code, which did require two totally hacky symbolic links before it would work.
  6. Realize that the uno includes an led on the board so I didn’t need to build the circuit and realize that it came pre-loaded with the basic blink code so that I can’t actually tell if I did anything yet.
  7. Change the blink code to use port 12 and be faster to prove I’m actually in control.
  8. Success!

Tomorrow or this weekend I hope to learn to how to talk to the led strip. Then I need to go get a fez of some kind. Oh and a Halloween party to attend in the costume, that would be a good thing to find as well.