Midnight Madness

Late June this year this article appeared talking about a "Midnight Madness" puzzle event in NYC. The event sounded super interesting and right up the collective alley of us puzzlers so we started inquiring. With some work we found out that "Midnight Madness" was a series of events in NYC for the past several years, mostly for Columbia students, and really harkens back to the original movie: lighter on puzzles and heavier on searching for things and impeding others. MM had a reboot in 2012 when it was run as a thank-you event for a charitable fundraiser. With, effectively, a steep entrance fee most of the gooning seems to have disappeared, leaving a few hundred people really excited about racing through NYC overnight, solving puzzles better than anyone else. The write-up talked about some extravagant puzzles, including one that changed the light pattern on the Bank of America building and one using lasers and mirrors in a fog-filled abandoned hotel. Pretty slick. We Burninators wanted in.

Midnight Madness had many aspects pretty foreign to Burninators (at least, certainly, to me). For one, the team size was 10 -- that's a lot of people in a foot game. But the second aspect explains that -- the 2012 and 2013 games had parallel solving paths and the team was expected to split up. Before the event we did some planning and arranged for "squads" of 3-4 people including a "squad leader", which despite the name really was just someone who promised to always answer the phone and keep the other squads updated.

A second aspect, of course, was that the event was as long as a decathlon but entirely on foot (or, "on foot" -- subways, bikes, and taxis were legal conveyance). And run at night. I'd never think to sleep in the middle of a decathlon, but taking a cat nap at 4:45am is pretty tempting. Overnight I managed to never wink out -- keeping moving helped with that -- but some Burninators did get 20 minute naps in place.

So let's run through the night in chronological order, at least briefly, and I'll come back to a few points at the end.

The event started at a closed-down grocery store in China town. We were among the first people to arrive but we were clearly among our people -- puzzle hunters have this young, nerdy, college student look to them whether they be Googlers in San Francisco or Wall Street robotraders in NYC. At 6:30 we were let in to the parking lot -- the starting area -- where we registered then idled about. A small band was playing music, which we were sure would be a clue -- the three players wore red, green, and blue jackets -- but it all proved to be just entertainment, nothing more. Weird. Over time more people trickled in until we had about 200 or so players milling about. Awesome. The only problem with a game starting late in the day is that I was wound up all day long waiting for it to start. So much excitement!

Some announcements, then our initial puzzle packets distributed. Go! We were given: a map of the green zone; some eggs which could be exchanged for hints; an electronic gizmo which was going to be a puzzle later; and a puzzle now. The now-puzzle was a bunch of movie images and a big sheet to place them on. Figure out where to place each image, pull out a letter, and it spells a message. I really didn't take part in this puzzle -- I inventoried our other items, and I was sure that the rule book had a puzzle because the line breaks in the text were at unnecessary locations. Turns out I was wrong. [shrug]. In many places in the event we got extra data or things that looked like puzzles that ended up not being anything. The musicians at the start was another example -- they really were *just* entertainment, not a puzzle.

So we solved the movie puzzle for a bit, I watched a couple teams leave pretty quickly, but then Ian (I think) magic eyed a possible answer -- fifty-six something or other. Seemed plausible, let's head out. We pack up and leave behind many teams still placing movies on their sheets of paper. Okay. Then we start our first non-puzzle puzzle: getting a ride. We use Uber to summon a few rides and hail a cab for the third. Uber ends up being not that great in the end, so this is the only time we use it -- it's easy enough to hail a cab for the rest of the event. On the ride to the next location, which is many minutes away, my squad has enough time to start second guessing the answer -- maybe it's TWENTYSIX rather than FIFTY-SIX. Fortunately, we round the corner at 56th and see a bunch of posters taped to a wall and GC sitting beneath them and this conversation ends.

The posters puzzle is perhaps my favorite. Posters show, say, Tina Fey and Harrison Ford laying together in a bed. Huh? I point out that there's colored borders around each poster. Neat. Then one. I resort to Googling. Another poster has Pres. Obama bowling on a green carpet, and I find there's a "Bowling Green" not far away. One thing leads to another and we figure that the colors refer to subway lines and the images depict to stations. Bowling Green is a station, is as Bedford (get it?). Rockefeller is another station which is the location of 30 Rock, which Tina Fey stars in. Okay, a bit of a stretch, but we have our letters. Bruce pulls SHOE REPAIR out of my SHLE REPA(scratch scratch scratch) and I find an M&G Shoe Repair not far away. We get MAND solidly at the start but can't really torture that into a G. But M&G Shoe Repair is a place so we hail cabs and head out. Oh, also, Wei-Hwa and Rich have headed out for a "queued" location, which is a puzzle that only one team at a time can do -- the others are queued up. Oh, and did I mention that we were the first team to arrive at this location? We felt pretty good about that. I guess the other teams that'd left the start early were either just solving elsewhere, or had driven somewhere speculatively (more on that in a second).

We cab to M&G Shoe Repair, and where we'd expected to find GC we find nothing. Hm. We fret for a bit, then some more Googling. I find M and M shoe repair, too -- come on, NYC, have some creativity in these names. We decide that this is a pretty likely candidate but this time take the subway. I feel bad for the side trip, but arriving at M and M shoe repair we find (a) GC; (b) we're the first ones here. Awesome. This puzzle is pretty straightforward, especially because GC explained how the first half would work to us. (I think this volunteer was confused on what she was supposed to do --- I'm sure the explanation was a mistake, but I never checked in with GC later.) One card was a word search grid, one card had slots for letters. Find words to fit the slots. Okay, let's go. Jasters uses magic software to find all the words in about 2 minutes -- sweet. We write them in the slots -- then what. About this time Doug's bag starts to talk.

Turns out, Doug's been carrying the electronic gizmo we got at the start, and for the past 45 minutes it's been saying something every minute. Only, we never heard it -- not sure how we'd ever had heard it. Also, we don't know it's been doing this for awhile, so we start working on that puzzle, too -- maybe it was triggered by GPS to this location? We just finally decipher what it's saying -- take me to pier something or other -- when we get an e-mail message from GC: "Your box wants you to take it to pier something or other; do that now." I guess we were supposed to have figured this out earlier. Oops. We send a squad to the pier with the box. We also get an e-mail message telling us to visit the carousel at pier something else -- we dispatch another squad. See, that green zone map we got at the start, it also had a blue box in it. We were told that the map would have a zone which we'd have to visit despite not getting any puzzles leading us there, but the significance of those instructions was lost on us. Also, we didn't know we needed to do that *now*. I suspect that the first few teams leaving the start headed to the blue zone. That'd have been a good move -- the first location, on 56th, was not far from the blue zone.

Anyway, back to the word search puzzle. Jasters makes an observation about overlaying one grid on the other, Doug spots that a doubled letter lines up correctly, and we get a cryptokey very quickly. The puzzle decodes to SIX POINT FIVE AVE. Neat - let's go. Turns out that 6 1/2 Ave. is a real place, extending for just a few blocks a bit north of Times square. Off goes my squad: Doug, Jonathan (aka Jasters), and me.

Unfortunately, this is about where things start to get rocky for my squad. We arrive at 51st and 6.5 Ave -- it's a cavernous plaza beneath some building with some artwork, some signs, but not GC. Okay, we're not licked. Let's just walk up the avenue. But, oh -- it's blocked. Ugh. We go on to discover that most of 6.5 Ave is blocked, and that the only way to walk along it, at least at this hour, is to either cut back to 7th, or to walk through parking garages. We do both, of course. We walk the length, which is 6 short blocks, and find no sign of GC. Hrm. We walk about along 7th and search the plaza again. Harder. Still, nothing. Frustrated, we contact another squad, who's near GC at the pier. It seems that they're not having a ton of fun there just yet. The gizmo puzzle is meant to be a social mixer puzzle but the social mixer part sort of fails -- not clear why, I'd need to ask Dan. Probably just too many cooks. The carousel puzzle has us stumped, but now that I know how that one works someone did suggest the right idea at some point, but it'd be hours later before we came back to it. In any event, we get Dan to acquire us a hint for where the puzzle location is: "it's right there, try looking harder." Ugh. Oh, also, we're told that it's at the M&M *Store*. That's not far, so we walk there. Nope - it's closed, and no GC. We radio back and learn that the "store" part was a misinterpretation. Fine. We return to the plaza and look harder. We start to give up. Jasters leaves his bag and walks the ave. again. This time, he finds GC -- they've been in the corner a few blocks up all along. We didn't see them the first time, and we walked back along 7th and were too far away. [sigh]

This puzzle ended up being pretty straightforward. Three packs of M&Ms. Open them up, count the unique of each color. They're in the 1-26 range which looks promising but doesn't work. They're printed with [MM 2013] in a little box, Doug guesses it's like an atomic element, and he's right. The counts are atomic numbers (atommic nummbers, apparently, for M&M) and we get three words, {PARK, NEAR, HSES}. What's an HSES? PARK and NEAR are really solid. Ugh. We wring hands on this for a while. We find a high school with the right initials but we're reluctant to go. By this time we'd heard that the blue zone puzzles were kind of broken, and our frustration in just finding the M&M puzzle kind of got the better of us (despite it being kind of our own fault). So, we go back to the clue site. This time, we find a start code -- Jasters is sure it wasn't there before. Okay, maybe a clue. Start code tells us to go to Saks Fifth Avenue -- hey, that's a clear message. Let's do that.

We walk to Saks -- it's 10-15 minutes walk and about at the break-even point for a cab ride, in time. We arrive there -- no GC, and nothing with a big M&M on it. Hm. We walk the building and look in all the windows. I see one window being changed -- really, I saw a child manikin moving seemingly on its own and it's really creepy. Then I see someone's hands. I walk on. Nothing here. So, a wild goose chase? I'm convinced we'll need to fetch something from elsewhere and bring it here, and only then the story will be clear. Why summon us here now? To tell us we need this location, I guess. Hm. So, now what? We go to HQ with eggs.

We were given five foam eggs at the start of the event, and these are tokens to be exchanged for hints. Bring an egg to GC's HQ (a diner in midtown) and they'll give you a hint. Only, we made a tactical error -- Doug was carrying all the eggs, so no other squad could get a hint. We needed to get our eggs to HQ, so we bailed on Saks and headed to HQ to pass around the eggs. We arrived there to find Bruce and Greg working on a puzzle they'd gotten from the pier, when the gizmo group-solve puzzle was completed. That activity had opened up the red zone map and given us the "menu" puzzle, which was causing them some hardship. We looked things over, distributed some eggs, and exchanged eggs for hints. Eggs helped us resolve the menu puzzle and helped our blue zone squads out. We redivide our squad -- I think Bruce and Jasters head off elsewhere? Doug, Greg, and I head out for the high school.

We find nothing at the high school. Across the street is a parking garage that's closed up -- Greg checked it out as we walked by -- and on the corner there's a city park. We walk around the park and look in but it's also closed up. Nothin'. We get another message at this point, I think Dan wants us to come in to HQ for something, so we head back to HQ. ... Something happens, I forget what. ... more time passes. It's sort of blurry now. But now, the important point is, I use an egg to get a hint on the M&M puzzle. I find out that HSES *is* correct, and in fact we should go to the parking garage. I pull my squad together and we head back. We arrive to find the garage closed up. I ring the bell and wake up the poor guy staffing the night shift. He doesn't know anything about a scavenger hunt. We hear a car door behind us and see that GC's just pulled up. I see. We get a USB drive in the form of a cassette tape from GC and we're off.

The M&M experience really killed this squad. It started out with our own issue -- not finding the right part of 6.5 Ave. but (a) we got bad hint advice for there the real location was -- it wasn't at the M&M store -- and (b) we'd been to this site before and GC wasn't there -- Greg looked right where we were told GC would be on the first visit, and GC drove up on the second visit. So, hrm.

In any event, the cassette puzzle was a neat little puzzle -- songs and 8-bit arcade sounds overlapping each other. Identify the songs and the games and some puzzly things happen. Pulls out the message CHOICES RUGS very cleanly. Ian and Wei-Hwa get a chance to use their arcade game knowledge by speakerphone to get us through this one. Also, Greg shows Doug and me his office on Times Square. It's nice to sit for a bit of time, and Doug catches a quick nap as I wrap up the puzzle.

Choice's Rugs isn't far, I think we walk it. We get there and ... no GC. I call GC's hotline and get voicemail. I e-mail and wait. GC's photographer friend arrives and wonders why we're not doing anything. We explain there's no puzzle. He calls GC, gets someone, and relays that GC forgot to post this puzzle. Ugh. We wait outside for about 30 minutes for this one. GC and puzzle arrives: just a large sheet of paper with some letters and symbols. Just as we're copying down the data another team arrives. I'll admit, I'm a little bitter that we burned up time waiting for the puzzle to appear while the other team didn't have that misfortune.

Melinda radios in that our puzzle may combine with a puzzle in Chinatown -- the wheel -- so we head there. The wheel is a plastic wheel with letters that can turn and a lamp behind it. Also, some circuitry. Clearly, it's meant to do something, just not clear what. I'm convinced it'll be a pad lock -- spin the right sequence of letters and it'll start spinning on its own. I try a few ideas but nothing works. We bail and return to HQ.

At HQ we meet Melinda, Wei-Hwa, Ian, and a few other people we haven't seen in about 8 hours. We learn a bit about the other puzzles and figure out where we have leads left over. I head out for Saks again, taking Doug and Greg with me, IIRC. On this visit we find another team and we find GC, who's just now *removing* the puzzle. I guess there was a technical problem. I'm all but certain that the puzzle was not there when we visited the first time, so I'm a little unhappy that we wasted time earlier on a fruitless search. And, having come so close, the puzzle moves again, but at least to a location where another squad is already waiting (ie, to a queued location). I head back to ... HQ, I think?

There's not a lot left at HQ so I head to Chinatown, this time with Melinda on the Constellation puzzle (it's bad to name a puzzle based on a key insight, but, well, too late). Melinda and I look around and try to figure out what the puzzle might do. She figures it's a chase, with each clue leading to the next. In the end that is how it works but the path is pretty hard to trace. Greg, Melinda, and I try a few things, we even try jumping to the end guessing at a particular location. No dice. While we're away the rest of the team has wrapped up all the other puzzles and ends up converging at our location. With another hint, I think, we manage to figure out the right approach, and get the first two or three steps. All other squads show up and we're a 10-person team again for the first time in 12 hours. We follow a few more steps but get stuck. We end up seeing a few other teams and they're actually at the 11th of 12 steps. We're perplexed but we don't let that stop us from figuring out the final step. We look around and find the final location. It's been compromised, apparently, but GC's nearby and we get the next location. Definitely, we caught a time windfall here, making up for some of the lost minutes earlier.

We hop in three cabs and head to that location. We find a few other teams there working on data. The data here is similar to at Choice's Rugs, and that's good because it all feeds in to the puzzle that Wei-Hwa, Rich, and others had already figured out. So with this data they decoded the next location almost immediately. Then things get exciting.

See, at this point we figure that we've now closed up all the open paths in the event. We have no unconsumed data, and only this one location left. We're thinking it's the final location. It's 0.7 miles away but cabs are hard to find here. We end up just fast-walking it, for the most part. I think Doug & Dan caught a cab. Also, another squad catches a cab, there's no room for me but I run instead, and end up being better off because the cab gets stuck in traffic and the squad bails on the cab. Heh.

We reach that location and find ... 40 boxes, each with five padlocks. Throughout the night we'd collected foam keys at the queued puzzles and exchanged those keys for real keys with GC. Now we have a use for those keys. We split the keys among five of us and start trying locks. We expect one box will open with all our keys. We find some boxes that have one lock that'll open but nothing else does. We figure that's just random chance -- tip: don't secure your things with this lock brand. In literally the last box that we hadn't yet tested, we find that the keys open the locks. We also figure, later, that the boxes were alphabetically arranged and that our key ring was "Apollo theatre." Clever us.

Oh, also, to add to the fray: we were the only team at this location, but GC was here, along with the NY Times reporter and her photographer. They expected some excitement, it would seem.

Inside the box we found -- another piece of paper. "7 WTC 10th floor." The World Trade Center complex was 0.8 miles away. I guess we're heading there. Do we cab? We look for a cab but don't easily find one. We fast-walk. Also, there's lots of pedestrian traffic so we don't want to risk getting stuck in traffic. The reporter and photographer go with us, and the photographer runs out ahead of us several times to take action shots of us. We're really walking hard -- we must be this close. We find 7 WTC and GC's inside. Check us off a list, find an elevator. Up we go and -- it's the end! Leon's there (the actor who played Leon in the movie originally was on GC!), the director of the charity was there, a little "Finish" line was there, and bagels and water was there. We walk in and get lots of pictures taken. We're exhausted but exuberant. OMG we won, we actually won! We start talking with people, looking around, and, not more than 5 minutes later, a second team arrives (or, at least, one squad of that team). Wow, that was *really* close! I'm so glad we fast-walked and that we didn't try to find a cab -- I'm sure a taxi would have been slower. We get more pictures taken, we have much-needed munchies, and we talk with various people, including the NY Times reporter and the reporter from Bloomberg. More pictures, and more soaking it in. Over the next 45 minutes about one team every five minutes arrives -- the final is pretty close, although I also wonder if GC has some control in how much they help teams through the final couple of stages.

I'm pretty happy at the end, and Melinda does point out that winning makes things much better. I'm sure I'd be much unhappy about all those puzzle-isn't-ready-yet moments if we ended up in second place.


So, on the whole, I had a good time. I'd describe this event as an ambitious BANG run overnight. It's kind of crazy to fly cross-country for *just* this event, but, well, I at least didn't. And even at that, if the entrance requirements were aside, I'd play again, I'm sure.


I liked the long-form non-driving event, but I think that works in few locales. Eg, I don't think it works in San Francisco -- not enough subways (although we used taxis for almost all transit). I liked fusion/fission, as Melinda put it, and playing in squads. We swapped people around a bit and I was never the only person on a puzzle, even if the puzzle had Issues. Most of the puzzles decoded to a location in this event, and I found that I really missed that type of solution. Instead of using nutrimatic we used Maps search to find probable locations. I'd like to see more of that. GC was in one central location the whole night and could always be found there. It was also a good place to solve and eat tater-tots. The physical tokens for a hint was a little frustrating, of course, but it meant the event was a race and not just a personal challenge. We had real race-like decisions to make -- is it worth spending 20 minutes to move this egg to HQ to get a hint? This also meant that I didn't feel bad about taking shortcuts when presented -- eg, bypassing half of Constellations. It's a race, not about proving you've done all the steps of the puzzle. I wish GC had been a little more sympathetic to teams when puzzle sites were not yet ready. My squad had issues at four locations: one was our fault, one was GC's fault, and two, I think, were GC's issues but I'm not 100% certain. A "so sorry that this wasn't set up for you yet -- blue zone is on fire and we're a little frantic. Here's an egg, our apologies" would have been great. Instead, we had to *give up* a hint token to learn that we were in the right location all along but couldn't find GC. I also wish that we could have confirmed things such as "is this site really set up yet" without taking a hint. One other aspect I didn't like entirely was that I didn't see any of the gadget puzzles. My squad was on one path that was paper-and-M&M-only puzzles. I missed all the installations in the blue zone and all the queued puzzles. A lot of effort went into those puzzles but they seemed to have been designed for only two or there people per team to experience. That seems a missed opportunity to share some great work with more people.

There's more yet to this event, such as what the blue zone was like, but Melinda or someone else will write about that.


P.S. This post sounds sort of complainy, that we got the short end of the stick. Yes, some things that happened could have gone better for me or my squad. But on the whole I had a very great time. I enjoyed the romp around Manhattan overnight. I enjoyed puzzling in an all new locale and with all new other teams. I enjoyed the many novel game aspects of this event. I understand that GC put in innumerable hours to make this event happen and I thank them for their effort. I would enjoy and look forward to playing in this event in future.

Santa Cruz Is.

I didn’t think it possible, but today started earlier than yesterday. I woke up a few times during the night thinking my alarm was about to go off, only to see that I had a few hours left of sleep. Eventually 6a did come by, and I rolled out of bed. It took about an hour for both Melinda and I to make it through showering and such, but we were heading out of the parking lot by 7:15 or so.
The boat dock was pretty close to the hotel, and we already had our lunches packed so it was a short drive. We got our boarding pass and idled briefly waiting for the boat to begin loading. We struck up a conversation with another passenger, Polly, who ran a 50km trail race yesterday. She’s in town just for the weekend and wanted to see what this Channel Island place was about. She’s getting the abbreviated version, visiting only one island and for only a few hours today, same as us.
The boats in Ventura are bigger, and I think they go to all the islands, whereas out of Oxnard they go to only Anacapa. The ride was pretty smooth although with quite a bit of rolling -- the vessel still is small compared to the ocean, after all. I was happy for the boat to dock, in part because it’s an hour of just waiting.
Santa Cruz island differs from Anacapa in several respects. For one, the island itself is much hillier than East Anacapa. There are more trees and bushes here, and the island itself is much bigger (in fact, it’s the biggest ocean island off the lower 48 west coast; Whidbey Island is bigger but on Puget Sound, and north to Alaska has a lot of bigger islands). Until just a couple decades ago, private citizens ranched on the island, and one family even today still has a private residence on the island. Anacapa is home to 100,000s of seabirds, but Santa Cruz is much less of a nesting site. In part that’s because there are two types of rodents and an endemic Island Fox that would harass the birds and chicks.
We disembark on the pier (although still no tying up to the pier), hear the NPS rules orientation, and head to the ranch buildings which are now the visitor center. In front of the buildings are two rows of rusting ranch equipment: tractors, cement mixers, a saw, an old truck. Derelicts from decades ago but kept around to narrate what life was like for the ranchers.
About 15 minutes after docking, a volunteer with the NPS, Eb, organized a short hike. Melinda and I, Polly, and four other people joined in (in contrast, the ship had probably 60 people on board, but many of them were kayaking or camping). Eb seemed to know his material. He pointed out a white chalky patch as diatomaceous earth. More interestingly, that material can crystalize and turn into chert, a translucent, hard stone that the natives used for drilling holes into sea shells. Eb pointed out a few plants along the way, and he explained how the Island Fox was recently helped out by (a) reintroducing bald eagles, which drove away the foxes’ predator the golden eagle; and (b) the NPS and the Nature Conservancy have run a captive breeding program for the foxes, and even now still bring them to vets if they look lame. The island hosts about 1200 individuals and we saw one at the end of our hike.
The hike was short -- only three miles and only maybe 90 minutes -- but that was the right length of time considering our constraints (had to be back at the dock by 11:45). The views along the top of the island are grand, and I expect the night sky looks amazing when there’s no marine layer obscuring them.
Back at the boat I found myself volunteering to help load the boat with all the campers’ gear (the crew asked for a volunteer, no one else said yes, and I wanted to get the boat loaded and to go home!). The crew couldn’t believe that someone who wasn’t a camper would help -- dunno. It took maybe 15 minutes to bucket-brigade all the bags onto the ship, and then Melinda and I slept much of the return ride home.
Back on dry land we evaluated our options: Hearst Castle would be interesting but within 60 minutes of closing if we tried to go there. Nothing else seemed especially a draw, so we just headed home. Turns out to have been a good idea (I think?) because traffic was surprisingly bad for much of the way. The worst part was around Salinas which held us in 1-2 mph traffic for about an hour. It all cleared up just after we passed an “exit”. The problem is that, in this area, “exits” might be left turns across oncoming traffic. I suspect the occasional oncoming car tries to do the left-turner a favor, by stopping, but that blocks traffic behind that stopped car very quickly. After we’d cleared past one such intersection, the traffic cleared up. All told, though, it was about 90 minutes more time than I’d expected. Oh, and I should remember that the Chevron is in King City, and not just the first exit with services (Mesa Road, I think?).
We stopped for dinner in Morgan Hill. The diner I found was closed on Sunday. The BBQ place was closed already for the evening because they ran out of food. The Italian place, where we did eat, was all right, and Melinda and I shared at least one full stick of butter between our entrees.
Back home now, everything looks good, including the rats (excluding the lawn, which racoons turned up again). Time to prepare to return to the usual world.

Anacapa

When I bought our boat passage last week I figured a 10a departure would mean waking up like a normal workday -- or perhaps even afford a little sleeping in. But, when I did all the additions last night I worked back to a 6:45a wake-up time this morning. Melinda helped me out with some verbal prodding at 6:50a. This vacation is for adventuring, not sleeping in.
Best Western Inn of Ventura is a nice enough hotel. The bed was suitable (Melinda and I don’t have high needs), the walls a bit thin (all you other guests, I know when you fetched ice from the machine last night), and the dressing room outside the bathroom is oddly short (eg, the closet is only 6’ tall, not clear to the ceiling). But the shower rains hot water, and the free breakfast included eggs, bacon, and danishes so I’m down with that. Between everything we managed to get out the door, including with breakfast, by about 8a. Great.
We’re staying in Ventura, but today’s excursion leaves from the harbor in Oxnard, the next town south on the 101. It’s a short drive, and we make a quick stop at a Vons for lunch vittles. We arrive at Island Packers’ office just as they open their doors, around 8:55a. Checking in takes about two minutes, and we’re left with about an hour to pass waiting for departure. I guess we could have slept in a bit.
There are perhaps 40 people on the boat heading to Anacapa. Melinda and I fit in the “day-only, dry land” set, which I’ll call us. We’ll be there only for the afternoon and we’ll tromp around the island. Some people are camping overnight (“the campers”), some are kayaking, which means our boat has many much smaller boats on it, and some people aren’t even leaving our boat and are just enjoying a pelagic tour of a few islands. The crossing to the islands takes about an hour, despite being just about visible from the mainland -- boats can only go so fast.
When we woke up this morning we had a surprise: rain. Or, more like mist, I guess, but definitely water coming from the sky. I hadn’t planned on that -- I knew it may be overcast or cool, but not raining. The mist subsides by the time the boat leaves, but it’s cold air we cut through as we cross the Santa Barbara Channel. We have our windbreakers from our Antarctic adventures as outerwear, and they work great, but I regret not grabbing a middle layer yesterday when packing. By afternoon things warm up so it’s all good.
There’s a landing site on Anacapa, but vessels aren’t permitted to tie up there. Maybe the national park just don’t want anything to tear out the pier? Dunno. In any event we disembarked while the captain was holding the ship in reverse to keep it against the landing point. A little exciting, but nothing one big step couldn’t fix.
After ashore we were briefed on etiquette: don’t harass the wildlife, don’t walk near cliff edges, and don’t leave trash behind. Standard enough. We walk up a million steps to reach the main level of the island. And there we begin to see them: western gulls and their chicks!
First, a lesson on gulls. Common sea gulls one sees eating bread bowls outside Ivars or flying near garbage dumps might be western gulls or California gulls. They look about the same but close inspection should make it clear (eg, western gulls have pink feet while California gulls have yellow feet). Western gulls have two primary breeding sites, and nearly all westerns gulls you see come from either of these. One site is the Channel Islands, and the other is the Farallone islands. This all seems to jive with what Melinda and I are seeing, too. The island is covered with them. I’m not sure one could say they’re colonial, because while they live together on the island they all seem to want a lot of their own space. Perhaps each gull has an about 10’ radius of territory. Each adult gull seemed to be tending to between zero and three chicks, with two or three chicks being the most common counts. We saw chicks ranging in size from smaller than your fist to the size of adult gulls. The chicks all had chick plumage, which is greyish brown and spotted. The chicks blend in very well with the surroundings - even after two hours walking on the island I was still being caught unawares that the bush I was looking at also hid three gull chicks. Gull eggs are bigger than chicken eggs by about 50% in length and they have the same coloring as the chicks.
From the top of the landing site we walked along a trail to the Park Service visitors center. That’s really overstating the building, too. Anacapa saw several uses in the 20th century, but today there are a few sad buildings still standing. NPS owns them all and put a fresnel lens in one (there’s a lighthouse on the island) along with some other information and pictures. There’s no fresh water for visitors on the island, and every bench is covered with bird droppings (I mean, what do you expect?). So, these buildings are a landmark on the island but they’re really not much to speak of.
Our walk from the landing site to the building cluster takes us probably 20 minutes. It’s only about 0.25 miles, but we stop every few feet to photograph some adorable fuzzy bird. Knowing that there’s more to the island than just those birds we do press on. Along with the campers and day-visitors the boat dropped off two volunteers with a conservancy group, and they lead hikes and explain a few things. I learn that the NPS eradicated rats from the island in 1992 and is trying to eliminate ice plant. Both were or are non-native and were or are spoiling the chances for natives to take hold. The gulls are doing very well without the rats to harass them, and NPS hopes native vegetation will fill the void left when the ice plants are eliminated. Unfortunately this all means the island looks like it’s been touched by Death. The coreopsis plants stopped blooming a month or more ago, and the ice plants are all dead from herbicide.
The trails on the island are roughly a figure eight with the NPS building and campground in the middle. We walk the entire system and photo nearly every bird on the island (so it would seem). The view from Inspiration Point is rather nice: you’re on a cliff a few hundred feet above the sea and you’re looking at middle and west Anacapa islands that are not more than several hundred feet away. The afternoon weather was still overcast but in the right light (perhaps a nice sunset?) this scene would be amazing.
Our guided hike ends at Inspiration Point, so Melinda and I eat lunch there then head out on our own. I’m “blessed” by a passing gull just as we restart but most of the blessing ends up on my jacket. I brought a towel so I’m not any worse off. We follow paths back to the start and then head to the lighthouse on the island. It’s not much to see, and it’s mostly notable now because there’s a foghorn that blasts every 15 seconds. The trail prohibits passage beyond a certain point because of the fog horn noise, so Melinda and I sit at the end there for about 40 minutes taking in the view (at exactly this spot the lighthouse blocks a lot of the volume from the fog horn). Near the lighthouse we see a good number of brown pelicans. None seem to be with chicks, so near as we could tell with binoculars. We can tell, though, that they’re big birds! Unlike the gulls the pelicans are pretty skittish around humans, so we’re not allowed to go anywhere near them.
Melinda and I hit saturation about 2:20p and just sit and watch a family of gulls for about an hour while we wait for the boat. When the boat returns it has many more people than on the outbound trip. Apparently the boat had returned to harbor since we last saw it, and we’re now joining a group who’ve been out just for a non-landing trip. The boat’s kind of tight on the return, but we find seats.
Seeing the gulls on Anacapa gives me a better appreciation for gulls in general. One sees they’re not just scavenging scraps of bread or smelly trash, but they’re in a life cycle, producing and caring for chicks, and are a bit less common than one might think (eg, they nest primarily in only two island chains). They behave not entirely differently than penguins, especially the gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy: they’re a bit agitated when one is too close but not enough so to be violent. After one passes, the birds go back to their business. I ended up taking I’m sure a few hundred photos today, and I’ll find the couple that are good next week. I’m glad I was fully prepared, though.
Back on land Melinda and I returned to the Best Western, clean up, then head out to dinner. Melinda looked up some ideas while I was buying tomorrow’s lunch (another visit to Vons), and we settled on Mary’s Secret Garden: vegan food and one block from the hotel. I’m kind of starving so I kid to Melinda, “vegan? but I’m really hungry.” Heh. Turns out I had no reason to worry. The food at Mary’s was not in short supply, and I left very satisfied. The place reminded us of Cafe Gratitude, but unlike Cafe Gratitude Mary’s is not adverse to using heat to cook food. As a result we ordered a long list of items: a mulberry and orange smoothie (using almond milk); ginger orange raspberry iced tea; a “cheeze” plate made of almond, macadamia, and … a third nut butter; a burrito; tofu pad thai; a strawberry shortcake cupcake; coconut milk ice cream. Every item (except perhaps the smoothie) exceeded my expectations, and I left feeling very refueled for calories. I would recommend Mary’s Secret Garden to anyone who’s in town and of the vegan persuasion. One might want to make reservations. We didn’t have any; they found room for us but when we entered we could see that all the open tables had “reserved” signs on them.
Melinda and I enjoyed an after-dinner stroll along Main Street in Ventura. Downtown feels like it’s been revitalized. Many old buildings are newly renovated, there’s newer restaurants or small shops in place, and there’s not a lot of decay that we could see (although, oddly, we saw five or six thrift shops within the four blocks we walked). It all felt welcoming and safe, and we couldn’t help but think it’d be a good locale for a BANG or day-long puzzle event. Not that we’re going to do that here anytime soon, just observing it.
We’re in for the night now and we’re making our plans for tomorrow. We visit Santa Cruz tomorrow, departing from Island Packers’ other marina, and we’ll be there only until noon. It’s a short time to be on the island, but it’s better than no time at all. We’ll then take our time driving home.

San Mateo to Ventura

I took the full day off even though Melinda was working in the morning. I enjoyed sleeping in then spent a few hours tending to errands. I had our bags packed and ready by the time Melinda was home, around 2p.
2p was too late to miss traffic, though. We had no trouble heading south until south of San Jose, but from San Jose until Salinas we were in pockets of stop-and-go traffic. We had plenty of time to get to our destination for the night so we didn’t worry much.
We reached San Luis Obispo around 6p, and this location was my goal for dinner. We lucked on to a placed called the Apple Farm for dinner. Let’s call it family style but just a little fancier and better than any Marie Callender’s or Applebee’s you’ve ever been to. The food itself was two or three points better than that, too. The chicken cutlet was a little dry, but the bed of leaks was a nice bass note, and the pork shoulder cooked with bacon was more than filling. Perhaps the highlight of Apple Farm was the bakery. I bought an apple cookie and an oatmeal cookie for the road, and both were delightful, especially the apple cookie. Depending on the hour we may need to stop here on the way home. (Melinda’s edit: No we don’t.)
We reached Ventura a bit past 9p and checked in to the hotel. I was pretty tired so I did just a little fussing around, checking the schedule, before declaring I was going to bed. I set the alarm, and I don’t even remember now when Melinda went to sleep -- I think I was asleep within a few minutes of being horizontal.

Mystery Hunt 2013

Ah, the MIT Mystery Hunt. Another year, another event we'll be talking about for years to come.

I had the pleasure of playing with Leftout's West Coast contingent this year. We numbered about 16 at the peak on Friday and Saturday but ended with maybe 8 - 10 by Sunday evening and Monday morning. Rich's house is nicely arranged for these events: table in large kitchen is one solving zone; table in TV area is a second solving zone; some loose chairs make up a few more zones; and the living room in the front of the house is yet another zone. With exception of the living room these spaces are adjacent and without walls between them so it's easy to command everyone's attention or to eavesdrop on another conversation. We had a Hangout with Leftout East Coast on the wall-mounted TV so we had a view inside Boston. I made a nest in a corner between two zones and joined others here and there.

The event starts at noon in Boston with an in-person act layout out the story. Apparently, Enigma Valley Investment and Loan lived up to their evil name and "invested" the MIT Coin (ie, stole it). We want it back, so teams were to plan for its heist. How, exactly, we'll find out soon.

Ordinarily, the puzzling starts about 15 minutes after the end of the acting event, but GC told us they had some technical difficulties, please hang tight, first for an hour, then for another 45 minutes. We're champing to solve some puzzles, and we even ponder whether this is a puzzle -- after all, we're suppose to break in to this company's vault, right? But no, it's just real world technical glitches. The event does start, just two hours late (11a Pacific time). Great.

The event starts with a set of six puzzles which each solve to a name, the names of the people we'll recruit for our heist. Whom do you recruit for your heist? How about Danny Ocean, Maxwell Smart, Marty Bishop, and the like? Yes - these names feed into a meta puzzle that unlocks our full event: we're going to recruit each of six people (those three plus Indiana Jones, Richard Feynman, and Erno Rubik) for our heist. Each person represents one phase of the event with associated puzzles (with more or less theme) and meta puzzles. Also, after completing each phase (ie, after recruiting each person) the local team in Boston completes some additional activity for a particular obstacle in the way of our heist: dealing with the guards, cracking the safe, getting past the lasers, etc. The structure's pretty clear, actually very clear, and I really like it (in part because I like heist movies).

So we now begin the main part of the event. We have six phases but we've opened only some of the puzzles in the first phase. We expect (correctly) that we'll open further puzzles as we solve these, and so forth. I let other people pick up puzzles first, because I don't know exactly what I want to dive in to, but after some dust settles I start in on a neglected puzzle. There's a few MP3 files that play overlapping songs. I go about identifying the music and make a nice spreadsheet of everything. I'm kind of stuck. After a while I see someone adds a column for "album" and there's the insight -- each song comes from an album with a color: the White album, the Black album, etc. The puzzle flavor suggests we should "add another electronic band to the mix" which leads us to map the colors to numbers like resistors (there's four songs per file, too). But then, what? We have some very nice data -- we harvested data from the puzzle, did research to get more data, and had the insight about colors and numbers, but we're stuck. We try adding the resistor values and spelling words with black = B, red = R, etc., and we find a good word (ROBBY) but it's wrong. We try ever worse ideas for a while but we're stumped. We've invested three or four person-hours into this puzzle (working in parallel), we've done much of what we think we need, but no answer. Urgh.

And, that's a refrain that'll play out for much of the weekend. We expect puzzles in the Mystery hunt to be more challenging than those we face in most games, because we have the luxury of having hours to solve them. But this is a different challenge: we've done a lot of work, we have lots of derived data, but we're still stuck for what to do next. This pattern hits us for dozens of puzzles, and apparently not just for our team but for other teams as well, we learn later.

It's Friday evening now and I work on some other puzzles. I'll skip details of each of them but let me name a few from the weekend overall in just a little bit. Dinner arrives magically and we continue to puzzle. Melinda shows up around 9p, after class, and stays for a few hours before heading home; she teaches Saturday morning, too. I leave around 11p because I want to be refreshed for Saturday.

Typically, Mystery Hunts run until Sunday about noon Boston time, so until mid-morning for me this year. But heading into Saturday evening the team sees this event is going to be epic: we've completed none of the six phases and we've seen puzzles from just two of the six. And, we're apparently one of the teams doing better than most. Yikes. I decide to head home Saturday night, around 2:45, for some sleeping, too. Melinda stays up puzzling, having come by after teaching. Driving I-280 home is nice at 3a. Plus, the sound of the road is a wonderful break from music identification and Gangnam style (see below). I'm back Sunday morning to find we have puzzles from most of the phases available but we've completed only one meta. Sunday morning GC starts sending their e-mail messages: first, that their prediction for the end-of-hunt is Monday 9a. Second, that they're going to increase our rate of options accrual (the currency we're using to get a free answer on puzzles). We run with these changes through Sunday, but even by Sunday evening it's grim. GC drops more things: we need to complete only five phases, not six, to claim to be done, and, we get a free puzzle answer every hour. GC says they want the event to end soon, too, and they're doing all they can. Word from other teams is they're having not much better progress than we are.

We spend Sunday night and the wee hours on Monday sorting through the puzzles in order to identify which we'll take the free passes on. It's a little disheartening to take a bye on a puzzle you've spent hours on earlier (eg, the resistor code puzzle) but the answers feed into other puzzles that need progress.

I sleep at Rich's house Sunday night, just for three hours. I force myself awake around 5:45 because I don't want to catnap through the end of the event. It takes me 30 minutes to come back online -- I'm bleary-eyed and cold. We have a kitchen full of snacks, and a visit to Starbucks soon after helps. Monday morning GC lets teams start asking yes/no questions for hints in order to speed things up. We manage to eke out a few more answers but finally, just three minutes before noon (in Boston) Monday, GC announces that another team has completed all the puzzles. Woosh - just shy of 72 hours, 70 if you discount the late start, but 72 again if you include the time for the runaround at the end (even after solving everything there's typically a physical trek around campus to find the coin itself).

Melinda and I didn't stay much past the end at Rich's house -- we were ready for some sleep. A few people did stay and solved a few more puzzles but I'd exhausted everything I wanted to see.

Now, about those puzzles.

Megamix. The colors in the album names was a neat observation. It's a good example of what I like about puzzles: many disparate things (in this case, those songs) have something in common (an attribute of the album names) unexpectedly.

Diagramless crossmusic. This puzzle was renamed after I'd worked on it for hours - I wish I'd gotten this hint earlier. It's 263 MP3 files, each about three seconds long, and playing two overlapping songs. I thought about making a grid but the task seemed daunting. We identified maybe one quarter of the files. Did we need all of them? Dunno. We got this puzzle Saturday night but already our numbers were decreasing (many people at Rich's house could puzzle only until Saturday evening). I regret not trying to make a grid for this puzzle earlier. OTOH this could have been like the many other puzzles: invest a huge sum of time to make a spreadsheet of data and then get stuck at the last step. 8/

Sages Style. A YouTube video remix of Gangnam style parodies. Too bad Melinda was teaching when this puzzle came out. Justin Graham, Trisha, and I IDs a bunch of the videos, and the puzzle had a list of questions such as "number of ducks * 4". Lots of branches in the solving path: do we need to identify the original videos? Do we need to count the things ("ducks") in the complete, original parody or just in the clip as shown? Some parodies have none of the items listed, and some of the listed items don't seem to be anywhere. Some of the parodies aren't complete videos, just one or two scenes. We collected a bunch of data here and gave up because of these uncertainties. This puzzle is an example of us having ideas to try but without confidence things are correct we're unwilling to explore.

Space Monkey Mafia. Given is score after score of musical notes and lyrics, sorted by note and syllable. From the name one might find a stanza from "We didn't start the fire" among the syllables, and one can make that tune. Great. Now, identify the other 9 songs from this jumble. We identify three more of them but then stall. Hard to identify a song given 6x the possible notes and pieces of lyrics, and if those lyrics are "a" and "n't". I liked the core piece of this puzzle -- identify collections of things (syllables into songs) from a bigger soup of them. I wish it had been more tractable.

So good they named it Hull. I worked this puzzle with Doug. The cute insight here was using that cities in New England have the same names as those in England.

De-coins. Mystery Hunts often will have a scavenger hunt puzzle and this one was about coins. Currency coins, non-currency coins, alternative meanings of coins ("quartering of soldiers"), and Mystery Hunt coins. I contributed photos of several coins from my collection for this and was pleased with myself for having a few of the more rare items.

Golden Images. A bunch of photos of things, seemingly unrelated. What they do all have in common, it turns out, is that they're depicted on the Golden Record on Voyager. Some are images, some are sounds. Not sure how the puzzle part worked but neat to research about the Golden Record.

Phone tag. A phone system, call it and extract a bunch of data. It's sets of cities and area codes and lots of references to traveling salesman. I think we needed to find some traveling salesman problem solutions with some of the sets of the cities, but this puzzle has high branching factor -- lots of things one could do, all of them somewhat expensive to try so I'm reluctant to try any of them. I do try one or two and they don't work out. This marks the second time I've taken on a phone puzzle in a Hunt and given up. 8/

Snow Day. Themed around Blizzard games. Other people did the hard part but Jessen handed it to me when he had an inspiration (which proved correct) but couldn't try it at home. The puzzle ended with collecting data from high scores of a game one downloads for this puzzle. I was unreasonably pleased with myself on completing this puzzle, perhaps because it was a Sunday solve, at a time when we were running low on real solves (many of our "solves" were exchanging options for answers at this point).



So, the hunt was a much harder slog than in years past, but I still enjoyed the experience. Rich's house is a comfortable location for solving, I got to interact with people I don't usually play with (them being on other teams), and the weather was pleasant. I'd enjoy playing in Los Altos again and I'd enjoy going back to Boston.


(If you'd like to comment please do so on my G+ post.)

NYC visit

I'm in for the evening, now, cozy in a hotel room that doesn't show any signs of hurricane-force winds or lack of utilities. In fact much of what I've seen today shows mostly business as usual, due in large part I'm sure to a lot of hard work to get the world running again. On the descent into JFK I saw a handful of large trees in a golf course showing their small root system now above ground. The LIRR ran only three trains from Jamaica to Penn station each hour (oddly, those trains were clustered within 20 minutes of each other) rather than the usual about ten. Along the train ride into Manhattan I saw several more uprooted trees and caution tape wrapped around fueling stations that were presumably out of fuel.

The power was never out at my hotel but their phone system remains unreliable (on several occasions in the past three days I tried calling in order to confirm my reservation but was never able to make a connection). The subway lines work through midtown (ie, where I'm at) but don't head to Lower Manhattan (ie, where I'd like to be tomorrow for work) than that. Times square was packed with tourists taking pictures of themselves and each other. I took a few photos myself. I saw the Microsoft store and stood in line(!) to do so (the queue was short but for waiting in line I got my own personal demo). I got a demo of Surface and Windows 8, both of which are flashy. I visited the Disney store long enough to see that they had Wreck-It Ralph gear, and I walked through the Hershey's store. I saw a few people huddled near the bathrooms in the Hershey's store charging their iPhones. I turned around at about 43rd Street and headed back to the hotel, stopping at a forgettable Indian restaurant for dinner.

One new place I saw on Times Square was a Times Square museum. It's a hole in the wall now but I sense they have ambitions. The museum hosts some history on the area (it was formerly Longacre Square and it had a few decades of really rough time through the 1980s) and the New Year's Eve countdown crystal ball from 2008. The ball really is covered in Waterford crystal, and up close you can be suitably impressed with the crystal. From any distance, though, it looks no different than oh so many LEDs and inexpensive acrylic prisms. Sorry, Waterford. The laser etching on each tile is a nice touch, though.

I brought a hat and scarf with me and I'm glad I did so, they've kept me warm enough. I wish I'd brought my gloves but my pockets do just about as good of a job.

I'm optimistic that I'll adjust to NYC time quickly and wake up at a decent hour in the morning. It feels late to me already (maybe not 8:30p late just yet, but more than 5:30p).

September 16: Return travel

“Today” began for us about 26 hours ago when we awoke at 7:30a. Tel Aviv was awaking, too, with more activity than on Shabbat but less on a typical work day; today is the eve or Rosh Hashanah. We dress and complete our packing and head downstairs. I finally indulge in breakfast by having a croissant and smoked salmon in addition to my usual fruit juice and small cup of yoghurt. It’s nice but I still prefer a light breakfast.

Our flight is scheduled to depart at 1:10p but all advice we’ve received is to be at the airport three hours in advance. Ben Gurion security screening is reputed to be extensive and slow; plus, we were unable to check in online so we’ll be arriving without boarding passes. We finish breakfast and catch a cab when we were aiming for, just a few minutes past nine.

The cab ride is quick and when we arrive at the airport we find it not all that crowded (we’d been warned that it can be crowded for holiday travel), at least not at 9:30a. We enter the departures hall and descend to arrivals in order to return our rented SIM cards. While we headed to the gates I looked for another drop-off place, incidentally, but didn’t see one. It would have been nice to have a local phone for another hour or two but that didn’t seem to be an option. We return to the arrivals hall and find the queue for checking in. There’s a security check here but with more security staff than travellers just at this moment. We’re asked why we’re visiting Israel, whom did we speak to, and if I have a security check letter from work. I do (one for each of us) and in exchange for them and another two minutes we’re through the first round of security checks. We enqueue at the Air Canada check-in line (had we boarding passes we could have skipped this part) and … there we wait, for about 30 minutes. The check-in counter is not staffed until 10a (three hours before their first flight of the day, perhaps?) and this wait ends up as the longest queue we idle in.

I should say “queue” only in notion, not in practice. The travellers lined up single-file while waiting but as soon as the Air Canada staff arrived many people in the back of the line went straight to an open counter. We hadn’t queued up along barriers or anything, so it’s reasonable to have had several queues all at once. Someone earlier this week told me that a mark of an Israeli is that they don’t wait in orderly lines. I’m seeing that pretty clearly. Melinda and I end up following suit, though, and manage to be the first customers at one of the counters. A few scans of the bar codes on our passports and we have boarding passes and are sent on our way. I look back as we leave and see a long line at the first security check, which I think I could have passed by nonetheless with my security check letter, but I’m not sure. Perhaps this crowd is just the “exactly three hours early” crowd.

Past the check-in counters is the airports “Buy and Bye” area, a line of duty-free shops and a few eateries. Nothing that especially excited us, but non-travellers could go this far as well. We pass through and enter a second security check, this one the typical one found in airports with a metal detector, X-ray machine, 30” TV showing how to take one’s laptop out of one’s bag, and a wait of 5 - 8 minutes. No need to remove shoes and no mention of liquids or gels. We pass through and head to the gate.

Ben Gurion airport has three terminals (A, B, C) connected by hub in the center, and in the hub are shops (eateries, a book store, etc.). We find our gate at the end of B terminal, which is also the designated smoking area, so the waiting area air is stale. I take a few walks around and stop at the bathroom a few times (I picked up a bug, probably from drinking reclaimed water; I was fine by the time we were in the air to Toronto). I buy a Conceptis Puzzles book printed in Hebrew; I can manage the puzzles without reading these instructions (sudoku, kakuro, and battleship puzzles). We eat lunch near the gate and pass the time.

Our flight is delayed about 20 minutes but no big deal. The expected time to embark draws closer but there’s been no announcements about pre-boarding the families or first class. Then we hear an announcement: “Now boarding Air Canada flight 79.” The whole boarding area stands up and I see even a few people run to the gate. Melinda and I quickly press forward, because the early bird gets the overhead bin space while the last one in checks their baggage. Again, Israelis seem not so good with queues. We push on, find our seats, and manage to find pretty good spots for our luggage, too (better than on the outbound flight when we were among the last to stow our luggage).

The flight leaves with an about 30 minute delay but that’s not too much time lost. I pass the time on the flight watching movies (Happy Feet 2 has a simple and unlikely plot but the rendering and animation of the various species was really well done; The Sting is a “classic” con movie and still fun to watch 40 years on) and doing some puzzles, while the six year old in front of me opens the window shade every 5 minutes to check that the outside is still outside. Yes, it is, and it’s very bright, especially for those of us napping. But I do the same with the window later on, as we fly over Greenland. The ice fields and glaciers are an impressive sight. I’ll see if my photos turned out at all well.

We land at Toronto at 6:53p local time, about 25 minutes late. Our connection is tight but when I asked Air Canada for “SFO to TLV” this connection is what they provided -- I trusted them. So the original layover was 90 minutes but the flight delay shortened in to 65 minutes. And in the end that’s about the shortest time that’s possible to make this connection. First, we taxi for about 10 minutes, seemingly back the length of the runway then around one or two terminal buildings. Melinda and I are seated in the back of the plane so it’s several minutes of other people fussing with their luggage to disembark ahead of us. One passenger gives hugs to the flight attendant as he leaves -- less talking more walking! I guess he didn’t have a connection. We walk briskly up an escalator, along a hall, and along the express people mover (that’s a riot to power walk along -- you’re moving at a good run at that point). We head to the F gates which are connections to US destinations. We have no checked luggage (thankfully) else we’d have to pick it up at this point. We wait at US Customs -- the US has a deal with Canada to do US customs here in Toronto. Neat, I guess, but more waiting for us. We ask if we should cut to the front but the usher says they’re strict about doing that only for flights departing in 30 minutes, and ours leaves in 34 minutes at this point (see how the time goes by?). We pass customs, hand our declaration card to another person, and head to US Security. Another metal detector (this time with shoes off) and x-ray machine. We try to cut ahead but the security staff rebuff us (“talk to the airline”). The line isn’t too bad by our estimate so we decide to wait; I also figure, turns out correctly, that our terminal is just on the other side -- we’re close. They check boarding passes and passports as you put your luggage through the scanners, and Melinda was lucky enough to be randomly selected for the full-body imaging screening. Not what we needed right now but I collect her things while someone in a back room looks over a fuzzy scan of a human. Another passenger cuts ahead of us at this time and I guess, correctly, that she’s also a Tel Aviv arrival en route to San Francisco. Melinda gets the go-ahead and we all race to the end of the terminal (it would figure to be the end, no?). We arrive at gate 67 as they’re making a “last call for passengers on flight 759 to San Francisco” and we board. The overhead space is mostly full but it hasn’t been compacted yet, so with some adjustments we find room for our luggage very near us. I use the lav on board (no time to visit one in the terminal) and get a cup of water from a flight attendant. We entered the jetway at 7:43, about 50 minutes after we touched down on the inbound flight, and ostensibly 17 minutes ahead of our planned departure time. While waiting in our seats the fight staff announced that they were waiting for several more “connecting passengers”, and later revealed they were all on the inbound Tel Aviv flight (with us). Our flight ends up pushing back at 8:10, 10 minutes late, and still leaving six people behind, because they didn’t clear Canadian customs in time. Ouch. So, the lesson I’ve learned is, plan for at least 120 minutes layover at Pearson airport, as 90 minutes can become 60 and that’s just not enough.

The final leg of the travel was fine. Melinda slept for most of it, I watched Tower Heist (modestly amusing but unremarkable), dozed, and solved a few kakuro. We’re home now, the house is as it should be, and I’m looking forward to sleeping in our bed (so much smaller than the King bed in our hotel, though!). We’ll see if I’m bright eyed and bushy tailed at 8a tomorrow morning.

September 13: Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Whew, a full day today. And I want to head to bed soon. Let’s see what I can cover before then.

Today is the first of two days of guided tours we’ve signed up for: Jerusalem and Bethlehem today and Masada and the Dead Sea tomorrow. The tour starts at 7:20 so our day begins at 6a when my alarm goes off. We meet the tour company in the lobby, there’s some sorting out that happens on the street (they have several tours and a line of minibuses on the street and it takes maybe 10 minutes to figure who should go where). We join 14 other people on our minibus (actually, fewer -- some of them join us in Jerusalem) and head out toward one of the oldest cities in the world.
I fight sleep on the ride because, unlike Melinda, I’ve not passed these roads before and I want to take it all in. The airport is about 15 minutes along the way (the route is not quite an hour) but there’s little noteworthy. Along the highway is flat and uninhabited. Some of it is agriculture, some is little hills and trees, but little is towns or homes, at least not along the highway. It’s more like taking an interstate through rural America.

After picking up the rest of our manifest in Jerusalem we make our first stop at the Mount of Olives. This location affords a great view of the Old City and we can easily see the walls surrounding the city, the Temple Mount, and the Dome of the Rock. Perhaps 5 or 6 other tour groups are at this location now, too, and I hear explanations in English and Russian, among those that I couldn’t identify. There’s a few vendors here, too, aggressively selling postcards and such, but they don’t press me for anything (maybe I don’t look like the buying type?). A man with a camel is letting people sit on it for photos and Melinda cajoles me to a three minute ride. It’s fun, it turns out, especially if you’ve just watched someone else ride it so you know what to expect (eg, when a camel gets up or sits down, it does so front first, so you need to lean way back to keep from toppling over). We get lots of pictures of me, the camel, and Melinda, in exchange for a NIS 20 bill. Seems worth it.

The guide speaks English perfectly well and also narrates in Spanish for the three or four guests that benefit from it. I was surprised when the guide started speaking Spanish -- I don’t assume guides know more than the usual set of languages, but maybe he was selected for this tour because of this skill? Dunno. The Spanish part often ended up more brief than the English, in part perhaps because the guests could catch some of the meaning from the English.

The guide part happened in several places. As he drove (he was driver and guide) he explained some things along the way, or some background political or cultural information. At the Mount of Olives and elsewhere he would gather our group together to explain what we were looking at. In the Old City (later) he lead the path we would take around the area, often stopping to count noses (we never lost anyone!). We also had more than one guide; more on that … now.

The Mount of Olives was a nice vista but the first location up close would be the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian Authority, part of the West Bank, and Israeli Jews are prohibited from entering this region. So our tour proceeded to the border; we left the bus (and our driver) behind and crossed the border; we were met by a Palestinian guide and driver; and we boarded a bus on the other side. But it’s a little harder than that. The issue is, Israel’s built an 8m high wall protecting it from the Palestinian Authority, and there’s checkpoint at the border to pass through. Leaving Israel it wasn’t hard -- just walk through -- but it’s all on foot and one walks for maybe 200m before exiting the wall.

What one sees when exiting is the same natural environment but molded by a different set of political forces. The Palestinian side is noticably more run down than the Israeli side. Buildings are in more decay and several lots are either demolished buildings or half-constructed buildings without any evidence that the second half will happen. The streets themselves are poorly paved and I don’t recall seeing a traffic light on our path. Admittedly, Bethlehem is very close to the border, and the Church of the Nativity couldn’t have been more than three kilometers from the barrier. So note that I have a biased sample.

We drive on to the Church of the Nativity and our new tour guide gives us instructions before we disembark. These instructions include “move quickly, we want to be ahead of those Russians” which I thought was funny at the time but now I know why. There’s many many Russian visitors to these sites and they’re here for praying, not to take tourist photos. And praying takes more time than a quick photo. We enter the church and queue up to visit the Grotto of the Nativity. The guide checks -- it’s going to be maybe 90 minutes wait. So we begin waiting; and we’re thankful that the group of a dozen more Russians, who follow us a few minutes later, are behind us.

Most of what I know about the church I learned from Wikipedia so I won’t repeat it here. It was built in the 4th century over the site of the birthplace of Jesus and it’s the oldest church that’s been in continuous use (it’s still used today). It’s had good times and bad including coronations, earthquakes, fires, and even present-day conflicts. But none of that happened while we were around - great. You can see the effects of these changes on the building. First, the entrance to the church was originally very tall and grand but two renovations decreased the size to the now “be humble” stooping doorway. The columns supporting the ceiling are smooth and clean up to eye level but sooty beyond that, I presume from years of lamps being fired in the room. And that’s a shame, because the Crusaders painted murals on those columns and the details are pretty hard to see now. The present-day floor in the church is about a meter higher than the original floor -- there’s trap doors in the floor now, laying open, to show what the floor used to look like: gorgeous mosaic tile. Hard to say whether it’s better to roll back time to the 4th century or “just” to the 12th or 19th centuries to restore a building, but I did like the floors. The walls high overhead still have bits of gilding and mosaics and one imagines that the entire room would have been more than impressive in its best days.

Our line-waiting is kept entertaining by looking at the building and people, and by the occasional singing by the group of Russians just behind us. After we’ve been in line for nearly an hour when our guide starts to get agitated. “It’s going to be more than an hour yet; it’s the Russians, they pray slowly.” So he hatches a plan: his “friend” the security guard will look the other ways as the guide sneaks us in to the grotto through the exit. We can’t dally in the grotto because there’s only so much room, but that’s fine for all of us who just want a photo or two and to see the landmark for ourselves. The guide asks us to take off the stickers we’re wearing that identifies us as being in a tour group and then he takes us, four at a time, to the exit. It turns out to be a little harder than I guessed -- there’s an antechamber where the grotto empties out and there’s two security offices there. When it’s our turn, Melinda and I enter the antechamber and are told to sit in one place by our guide. We do that but one of the guards starts to question what Melinda’s doing (“are you done? Move along”). Melinda does a good job and gives useless answers to vague questions and when she sees an opportunity she continues the backward path in to the grotto. I suddenly find myself behind the back of the security guards, too, so I follow as well.

The grotto is a modest room, 3m by 10m, let’s say, and the exact spot chosen to mark the birthplace has a 14-pointed silver star. Many people are praying there, I take a picture or two, take a quick look around, then (properly!) walk out the exit. Melinda follows shortly and soon everyone’s gone through this way. The people ahead of us in line are probably still waiting for their turn.

The Church tour continues with a bit more walking around but the Grotto was the highlight. We pile back in the minibus and head toward the wall again. But not before an important stopping point: Johnny’s Souvenir shop. The street is lined with shops thus labelled and our guide takes us to this one; in fairness, he does not claim it’s the best, and I believe we all understand that these shops are all about equivalent. Certainly, Melinda and I believe it. We shop and buy some souvenirs and then wait for the slowest people in our group to buy their fill.

By now it’s after 2p and we’ve not had the lunch opportunity we were promised. The Church was slower than expected, apparently. We’re drive back to the border, we go through the checkpoint with some difficulty (mostly just some people in our group couldn’t follow instructions -- there was no one else trying to cross this direction so just one Israeli guard patiently screened all of us), and we’re reunited with our Israeli guide. Overdue for lunch we stop at a church near the border that also has a restaurant, that’s cafe style. Melinda and I have kebabs and fries and recharge. Great.

It’s a short drive back to the Old City again and we head to Jaffa Gate. Time for some walking. We enter the Old City at Jaffa Gate and walk through the Armenian and Jewish Quarters to find the Western Wall. Our guide knows where the good photo opportunities are and he explains the environment along the way. The Jewish quarter is the newest because it was all destroyed in the 20th century; it was rebuilt after the Six-days war, but during this rebuilding every new construction found some historic artifact. So many buildings are built atop ancient markets or roadways, with some parts of these left uncovered for study and show. The other parts of the Old City look more run down, in part because they’re older (less clean, more crowded) and in part because they’re in more disrepair. My favorite streets were the markets, though, that were covered and had vendors on both sides. The roads weren’t crowded (maybe because it’s Friday afternoon); had it been shoulder-to-shoulder people I’d have been less happy.

We visit the Western Wall and I venture up to touch and look at it. My new awesome hat means I don’t need further head covering, and my being male means I have lots of space on “my” side of the wall. Melinda foregoes visiting the wall in person because the women’s side is still thronged. Ultra-orthodox jews are praying at the wall and less orthodox, but traditional, men come up, stuff a slip of paper in a crack as their note to God, pray briefly and leave.

From the Wall we proceed to the Via Dolorosa, the path of Jesus in his final hours. The path has 14 stations but we visit about half of them. Three are along alleys that we walk and all three are surrounded by Russians praying. We stop at each one, take a photo, and hear from the guide about them. We proceed then to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial after dying on the cross, and the place where we was entombed. These locations are all in the same church and we have a look around. There’s a long wait for the final station but the others has little or no wait. This building is large but intricate, with alcoves, stairs, balconies, and twists and turns. In contrast the Church of the Nativity, very roughly, had a single large room (with columns), a smaller room in the front, and one room on each side; that’s it.

I’m about saturated on experiencing in real life the places I’ve read about in ancient books, so I’m content that the tour is more or less done at this point. Melinda and another woman on the tour disappear for a few minutes and come back with dessert breads bought from a vendor; that, and the water are a welcome treat. We’re given about 20 minutes to shop at the vendors, Melinda and I look at many of them (though, they’re mostly all the same) but end up without any purchases -- nothing really speaks us that we could see putting out in the house.

The minibus retraces its treads from earlier in the day and we’re back at the hotel around 7p. Melinda’s full from lunch but I’m still hungry so I find a large snack at the hotel bar (the restaurant is given over to an extravagant, and expensive, buffet for dinner and I’m not $65 hungry). We reset the backpack and prepare for tomorrow: Masada and the Dead Sea.

September 13: End of the work week

The day started at 6a today when Melinda woke, showered, dressed, and headed out for Jerusalem. She wanted to visit the Temple Mount (and she succeeded!) and knowing the line she saw the other day she knew to get there early. I bid her adieu and went back to sleep; my excuse was that getting up and going would have slowed her down.

The official part of my day started at 8:20 as usual and proceeded through my routine: shower, dress, minimal breakfast, and a walk to the office. I’ll miss the walk, it’s awfully nice, in both directions (although, a little nicer on the way back, just after dusk). Some more 1:1 and group meetings, some catching up with work from Mountain View, and the day raced by.

Melinda returned from Jerusalem around 6:45 just in time to meet me, Gaal, Amit, and Dror for dinner not far from the office. Sderot Rothschild continues past the office but gains more little bistros as it does, and dinner was at one of these bistros. I rather liked the salted beet salad (beets, arugula, feta, dressing, and large-crystal salt) and the beef (very tender). Come to think of it most of the dishes were heavily salted, but in a way that enhanced flavor, not (just) blood pressure. Perusing the dessert menu I observed that the English menu prices were a little more expensive than the Hebrew menu prices. Apparently that’s illegal in Israel but we didn’t do anything about it; when the check came the prices were the lesser values.

Melinda and I had forgotten to pack hats when we left San Francisco and with a trip to the Dead Sea coming up I’ve been trying to solve this problem. Google Maps suggested there’d be a The North Face store near the restaurant but Gaal said it was a lie. Fortunately, he knew of a much better store just a little further away. He accompanied us most of the way there after dinner, and when Melinda and I did arrive we found the Tel Aviv version of The Sports Basement, it seemed. We immediately spotted two nice hats (I have a new adventuring hat!) and took a quick look around the rest of the building, just to see what’s there. The place is small -- about the size of a typical in-mall store -- but one of the workers there claimed it was the biggest sporting goods store in Tel Aviv. Cool. It did indeed have a great selection of hot and cold weather gear (and, as Gaal promised, everything was more expensive than what we’d have paid for it in the US). I was happy to part with my money for the sun protection and we headed out. We hailed a cab pretty quickly and were whisked back to the hotel.

Our morning tomorrow begins at 6a, this time for the both of us. Our tour to Jerusalem and Bethlehem departs at 7:20 from the lobby. We have our clothes set out and it’s just now a matter of winding ourselves down into sleep.

September 12: Sailing

Another work day, mostly. Slept in an extra 30 minutes (we’re on Tel Aviv time but behaving like we’re in the Bay Area -- alarm rings at 8:30 but we snooze it for 30 or 40 minutes). Breakfast, walk to work (nicer today because I’m wearing shorts), and a day of working.

The afternoon highlight was sailing out of Jaffa on a boat that Gaal borrowed. It was four people from TLV, me, Melinda, and a co-workers’ son. Gaal’s sailed quite a bit now, it seems, and he managed the vessel like it was old hat. I got to help raise the sail (by pulling a line and turning a crank), and Melinda steered the ship for a while as we headed north along the shore. The ship tossed about a bit but with swell less than 1m and only light wind it was hardly anything. We were out for maybe two hours, just floating up then back along the coast (which really just amounted to maybe a few miles of travel). Melinda and I each took a sit in the seat mounted way out over the bow. It’s a pretty nice perch and my only regret was that we never dove in to a swell enough to get my feet wet during that time. The weather was clear and it was a beautiful day to be on the water.

Gaal, Melinda, and I walked back to the hotel from Jaffa and enjoyed the long beach and promenade. Athletic people ran past, families were grilling dinner along the beach, and many people were just out and about, despite the now distinct lack of daylight. There’s less development along the beachfront than there would be had this city been in the US -- long runs of the beach front have no significant buildings within 400m of the promenade. It’s probably just a matter of time, though.
Back at the hotel Gaal gave us dinner and dessert suggestions, we parted company, and Melinda and I tried these suggestions. Dinner at Dallal was elegant and trendy and the cuisine rich in flavors, some unusual to us (creamed eggplant dipping sauce for the bread). Ice cream at Glida Savta is about 10x better than the typical ice cream I have in the US. It had the slightly gritty texture of homemade ice cream, yet was still light and fluffy (I had vanilla, Melinda “lotus” which is a gingersnap biscuit brand). I carefully ate all the ice cream without eating the cone; the cone was no different than American cones and I didn’t want to sully the ice cream flavor. Well worth venturing out for, and I’m glad we got the recommendations.

We packed short of the full week for this trip, intending to launder clothes here. That plan worked so well in Antarctica! I bundled up two days more of clothes and we’ll get them back tomorrow. Should all go well that’ll leave us with just enough for the trip, and without the need for a third bag (which is really why we’re doing this -- to travel with less).

Tomorrow’s plan: last day of work in TLV, then, prepare to become a tourist.