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Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Time Event
I'm playing in the MIT Mystery Hunt right now and am on a little break (shower & shave before dinner). In puzzle events like this it's common for the answers to puzzles to be words or short phrases that are later used as input to other, "meta" puzzles. The grouping of "feeder" puzzles together and matching to a meta is usually left to teams and can be a fun exercise. This year's Mystery Hunt had a small change I rather liked. When we got a new puzzle we got a raft of data about it (thematically-matched data), data that wasn't used to solve the puzzle per se but that was used in solving the meta. The neat part is that this twist lets teams figure out which puzzles should be grouped together, even before solving these puzzles. It's not a simple task as "collect all the puzzles with a triangle on them" but it's not as hard as solving the entire puzzle. Nice touch. It's also a nice distraction from staring at the puzzles we've long since had a fresh perspective on.
Puzzle collaboration tools
Dan wrote a tool, Czar, for managing our table of puzzles + online resources. It worked pretty well. In the past we've used a wiki, with a separate page for each puzzle and a single index page. Puzzles often are released in waves, so when a new wave of puzzles came out, one person would lock the wiki for editing, add the puzzles, then move on. A big problem we faced was we would frequently want to edit a small part of the page, independent of other edits, but the page would be locked by someone else. Making the edit was an expensive operation, too: clicking edit takes you to a new page, the page has an impoverished text editor (an HTML TEXTAREA) with an arcane markup language, a link to preview the change, the click save. Czar improves on this model greatly by letting each bit of information be edited in situ and in tandem with edits to other parts of the page. This had the added benefit that we could easily keep a one-line status message about solving progress up to date on Czar, and use Czar as a communication tool. Nearly no one used the wiki this year.

Features I'd like in Czar for future events like this:
* A small blog feature, per puzzle. Let me add notes about the puzzle, either as a write-only record or be editable. The one-line status isn't enough to give a brain dump but it's awkward to rely on the wiki for just this feature.

* Grey out solved puzzles in some way.

* Show a last-touched time for the status field.

* Load the page instantly. The current version loads only the header quickly, and then waits many seconds before loading the content of the page. I often used czar as a shortcut to the spreadsheets and don't need to be kept up to date with any changes in the last minute.

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