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September 24th, 2002


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06:21 am - Another week, another World Championship
The eleventh World Puzzle Championship is taking place in Oulu, Finland this week. I attended the tenth in Brno (the largest city in the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) last year and the ninth in Stamford, CT the year before, both as part of the United Kingdom team alongside ericklendl and others. The eleventh championship starts tomorrow; I am full of happy memories of my experiences at the ninth and I rather wish I was there.

The puzzles in the World Championships are (almost?) all based on logic rather than on language or cultural references, so that teams from around the world can compete against one another whatever language they speak. Some of the puzzles are spatial, mechanical or even physical, requiring manipulation of provided objects. Around twenty countries send teams of four competitors; most of the rounds of the contest are individual, but there are some rounds where the members of the national teams join up for competition as a foursome. If the concept appeals, the execution largely fulfils the promise; exactly the right people are in charge.

It would probably have been about 1997 or 1998 when I first found out about the World Puzzle Championship on the Internet - or, specifically, the annual online puzzle competition that also acts as the qualifying competition for the USA team. (An amusing sidenote is that at the start of the '90s, before the proliferation of Internet access to the public, the same competition took place with people faxing in their puzzle solutions.) A couple of years of missed opportunities passed, and eventually in 2000 I got my act together sufficiently to be able to take the test. In all, there were six people from the UK who took part out of perhaps 250 globally (210 from the United States).

As if by magic, a large chunk of luck appeared at this point to turn what progress we had made so far into a functional WPC team. First off, there was a UK representative to the World Puzzle Federation (who are the World Puzzle Championships overseers and organisers) who was keen to see a UK team there, to the point of paying all four team members' US$400 hotel-bill-and-entry-fees. The other happy coincidence is the top four UK performers on that test all turned up at Mind Sports Olympiad 4. I was working there and got to meet Nick Deller (the aforementioned ericklendl) for the first time after a couple of years' miscellaneous occasional game show chat, Ken Wilshire (a lovely guy and a dedicated family man, albeit sometimes prone to gung ho over-enthusiasm; also a MSO multiple-time medalist - he beat Demis Hassabis at the MSO 1 Pentamind, no less - and Usual Suspect) and Lionel Wright (a charming, sociable, self-effacing and likeable gentleman who is either a phenomenal gambler, a phenomenal bullshitter or a bit of both). We were never all in the same place at the same time, but we struggled by and managed to make the UK team work.

Incidentally, Nick was at MSO 4 for seven days and wrote an excellent series of articles about his experiences, the first three days of which seem to - meep - have been lost in the Great Domain Ownership Buggeration Of '02. (Or maybe even before then, as the Wayback Machine doesn't seem to have grabbed 'em. Sorry, Nick.)

None of us really had much clue what to expect from our first WPC, but you can read our experiences in full in this longer article. In short, much food was eaten, many friends were made and rather more puzzles were solved than I had feared. The highlight was the "Mr. Potato Head" team round, summarised half-way down Ed. "mathpuzzle.com" Pegg Jr.'s report by the authors themselves - some really-quite-high-ups at WotC, who were also tremendous company. It was effectively a sit-down puzzle hunt nearly completely restricted to very hard logic puzzles for two and a half hours, and wickedly well constructed. The UK team finished 14th out of 20, with ericklendl top of the Brits in a spectacular 31st place (of 78), Ken Wilshire in 54th, Lionel Wright in 59th and me in a halfway-competent 64th. (That's to say that I scored half as many points as those who finished competently.)

2001's bash was rather less fortuitous in some ways, not least that thinks.com weren't paying for it. Lionel took no part in the event - even the tryouts - this year, but a university lecturer from Northern Ireland, David McNeill, did instead. David got an outstanding - nay, world class - tryout score, but the event clashed with his university commitments and he couldn't make it. The '01 team was myself, ericklendl, Ken and our secret weapon Nick Gardner, an accountant from the South Coast who proved to be the strong-but-silent type and an ideal team-mate. Our performances were much better, being right up there in the pack rather than left a little way behind. The UK team finished 17th out of 26¼ with Nick Gardner 41st of 105, Nick Deller 45th, me 72nd (so out of the bottom quarter!) and Ken 80th. As a unit, we were much more competitive than we were in 2000 - legitimate journeymen rather than mere placefillers.

I haven't written as much about the 2001 WPC because, well, the second time never is as special as the first. The hotel wasn't as nice, the food (although good) wasn't as spectacular, I caught a nasty cold and Nick did a mischief to his ankle. Brno, as a location, just isn't as interesting to my eyes as Stamford, CT and the Big Apple. (The whole of the Czech Republic is recommended if you're big on churches, though.) There were still lots of highlights, though, not least a stunning boat trip through limestone caves and a cunning plan to redistribute free beer. The organisers put on an excellent show, garnering an impressive level of local interest and a groovin', "Fast Friends"-stylee theme tune. Still an experience not to be missed, though merely excellent rather than out of this world.

2002 gets raggedier still. I missed the official tryout slot due to attending a wedding, but all the British participants simultaneously perform well below their capacity. I unofficially do the tryout the next day and make just one mistake, but it's a biggie - I forget exactly when I had started the paper and inadvertently allow myself three hours instead of two and a half. If I had done this in the real thing, this would have brought sufficient time penalties into play to place me last in the world by a spectacular margin.

The UK got around six tryout entrants again, though, so I am placed anywhere between about second (if you only count my first 2½ hours) and sixth in the country. This year's WPC will be in Oulu, Finland - a university town switched-on enough to host its own Mind Sports Festival (effectively, a small Olympiad) in October. Unfortunately, Finland is an expensive place to reach whether by air or by ferry to Norway and a 2,000-mile road trip. The cheapest option is RyanAir to Stockholm and then rail around the Swedish coast, but that's still costly and very slow. It's a particular shame as I already have friends in Oulu who I'd like to meet, but I've had to skip this year's event on money grounds as have most of the other possibles. This means that the UK contingent this year is not a full team but just a disappointing duo - Ken and Nick Gardner. Naturally, I wish them the best of luck - and the best of health - this week and I'm sure they'll both do well and have slightly too much fun.

Crikey, it's late. I'm going to call this a two-parter and finish it tomorrow. Today's entry has been about the past of the UK's WPC involvement, tomorrow's second half will be about the future!

(19 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


From:songmonk
Date:September 23rd, 2002 10:56 pm (UTC)

Name dropping

(Link)
Wei-Hua is a friend of pchou's. (Wei-Hua finished 4th in 2001, 2nd in 2000, 1st in 1999, 1st in 1998, 1st in 1997, 3rd in 1996, 1st in 1995, 7th in 1994 and 2nd in 1993.) He's the newest member on our team for the puzzle hunt next month. Can you say "ringer"? :-)
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From:quiz_master_man
Date:September 24th, 2002 05:42 am (UTC)

Re: Name dropping

(Link)
Wei-Hua was also the first person to respond to what would become "The Funniest Net Match Game Episode Ever."

Chris M. Dickson was the second.

Whaddya think about THAT?

-Myron
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 06:17 am (UTC)

Re: Name dropping

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That would be the "Beavis and Butthead" one to which I gave a sucky answer, yesno? I was looking at it recently to see if there were any amusing references I could make in the context of your $50,000 win.

You realise this gives us very easy connections to him in "Six Degrees of Wei-Hwa Huang"?
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 06:15 am (UTC)

Re: Name dropping

(Link)
We definitely get onto Mr. Huang in the second part of this article. ;-)

Definitely a handy man to have on your team for a puzzle hunt. (Which one, out of curiosity?) I don't know if he'll be quite as good in a hunt as he is in the WPC, but even if he's only half as good then I'm betting on your team.

Can I be the newest member on your team for the puzzle hunt next month? With a team like that, it can't fail to be a larf and a half...
From:songmonk
Date:September 24th, 2002 03:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Name dropping

(Link)
I was kind of thinking the same thing -- that maybe this type of game isn't is forte as much, but he'll only be dominant by 50 magnitudes instead of 100. :-)

The game next month is FoBiK -- you can see the website at:

http://www.fobik.org

Yes, that's really it.

Having you on the team would be cool, but I think it might be expensive to call you on the phone. At least we can call you at 3:00 a.m. and not wake you up. :-)
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 04:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Name dropping

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Very v. cool indeed. I am most jealous.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if he turned out to be familiar with a very large number of ideas in general puzzle hunts, that you were the ninth team to use him as a ringer and so forth. In fact, there was an interesting article in the New Yorker about a puzzle hunt which you can still see at
http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?020304fa_FACT
that mentions a number of US WPF usual suspects. Given that Wei-Hwa would have been living in MD at the time (...?) I would be fully prepared to believe that he was involved with it in some form or other and I wouldn't be particularly surprised if he had turned out to have set some of it.

If you get anything that you suspect may be British-specific that you can't find anywhere else, feel free to phone me up regardless of the hour. In fact, I insist that you do! :-)
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From:bateleur
Date:September 24th, 2002 03:43 am (UTC)

Coooool !

(Link)
I never realised WoTC's big boys had been involved in the competition. That whole Mr. Potato Head thing is a superb story !

Out of interest, are there established techniques for solving things like the railroad tracks puzzle ? Or is it a case of mostly trial and error ?

And in a bizarre burst of synchronicity I first heard of Oulu yesterday in connection with the Top Secret Project and today it turns up in your LJ !
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 06:27 am (UTC)

Re: Coooool !

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Yes, the Mr. Potato Head round was superb.

Puzzles like those railroad tracks ones are ones I struggle with, which is why I tend to come so close to the bottom. You can certainly start by putting right angles into the corner squares of the grid and thinking about where the other right angles in the path would go. ericklendl is good at these.

The Oulu synchronicity may not be all that surprising. There really aren't that many relatively large towns in Finland, with Finland being one of the major players in the sort of mobile communications malarky with which you are connected.

I am very tempted to set up a WPC WeatherPixie. Watch this space...
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From:ericklendl
Date:September 24th, 2002 06:33 am (UTC)

Railroad Tracks

(Link)
The railroad tracks format is actually one of the easiest we saw, at least to my mind. There are quite a few constraints, one of which isn't made quite clear enough in the report; that is that the path cannot turn in a station square. Combine that with the fact that the path has to go through every square (and therefore you can draw Right Angles In The Corners, and the fact that all the crossings obviously extend into the adjacent squares, and most of the grid is full before you start.

I wish I were in Finland, but at least Jiggers has started mentioning Finland now. I was starting to worry there about how few mentions Finland was getting, compared even with, say, Norway.
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 06:59 am (UTC)

Re: Railroad Tracks

(Link)
Oh, I wish I were in the land of Oulu
Nick and Ken and all are there too
Look away! Look away!
Look away! To Finland!

To Scandi land where I've not been
Where sun shines in the mornin',
Look away! Look away!
Look away! To Finland!

I wish I were in Finland. Away! Away!
In Nokia land I'd take my stand
To solve puzzles in Finland.
Away! Away! Away up north in Finland!
Away! Away! Away up north in Finland!

I have a suspicion that this is getting into filksong territory...
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 07:05 am (UTC)

Re: Railroad Tracks

(Link)
Albeit not good filksong territory, but the principles are there, aren't they?
[User Picture]
From:ericklendl
Date:September 24th, 2002 07:33 am (UTC)

Errmmm...

(Link)
Makes mental note to look up "filksong" when he gets home...
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From:ericklendl
Date:September 24th, 2002 03:20 pm (UTC)

Oh, I seeeeeee...

(Link)
We're in Wadde Hadde Wei Hwa Huang territory, aren't we?

Hey you, why're you solving puzzle two?
Puzzle one's more fun, though it isn't quite as fun as puzzle four
Which would score you several more than puzzle three scored
For me, when I tried to solve puzzle two before four
Puzzle four became a real draw over puzzle two
At least, that's what I thought, but what thought you?
When you tried to do the two, did you know that you would score?
Or should the solving order just be puzzles two, one, three and four?

Umm, sorry. :-)
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 04:21 pm (UTC)

Who do we have here?

(Link)
Ladies and gentlemen, please put your grubby little fingers to the keyboard
For the magnificient muckety-muck of LiveJournal,
ericklendl!

Oh my God, he's here!
Wow... he went to America and said:
"Whether I make it here or not, I'm going to Brno next year!"
And tonight, he isn't in Finland! Wow!


Thanks, Nick. I don't think I've laughed quite so loud this year as I did at what you wrote. I may well have laughed longer, but not quite so loud...

It's moments like this when this whole LJ malarky becomes worthwhile. Thanks a million :-)
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From:bateleur
Date:September 24th, 2002 08:24 am (UTC)

Re: Railroad Tracks

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So are you saying "there are no hard railroad puzzles with unique solutions" or "examples we encounter in practice are not hard" ?

The key distinction being, of course, that if the former is the case then thinking about the generic theory of such puzzles is a waste of time !

Oh, wait, I've just had a (scary) thought ! Imagine a very large board...

Let 'S' be a station, 'O' be a generic space, 'X' be a junction space and '#' be an impassable space (leaving aside for a moment that there are no impassable spaces), then:

Imagine a set of squares on a railway board which look like this:

 #OOOOO#
 #OSSSO#
 #OSSSO#
 #OSSSO#
 #OOOOO#


I think it's the case that the central nine squares of this can only be in one of two states. Either three vertical lines run through them or three horizontal lines run across them.

This design can be stretched either horizontally or vertically. If I call it a 'wire' and call vertical and horizontal 'V' and 'H' and describe these as 'signal values' maybe you'll see where I'm heading...


########
#OOOOOOO
#OOSSSSS
#OSOSSSS
#OSSOSSS
#OOOOOOO
#OSSSO##
#OSSSO#



And that shows how signals can turn corners (note the assymmetry).


#OSSSO#
#OSSSO#
#OOOOO#
#OOXOO#
#OOOOO#
#OSSSO#
#OSSSO#



And that one shows how signals can be inverted. Which only leaves...

Hmm... no time to draw an AND gate at work. I'll have a shot this evening !
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:September 24th, 2002 01:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Railroad Tracks

(Link)
OK, let's take a shot at this...


     #O#
  ####O####
  OOOOOOOOO
  SSOOOOOSS
A SSOOXOOSS C
  SOOOOOOOS
  OOOOOOOOO
  ##OSSSO##
   #OSSSO#

      B


Right... I think that works. Assuming I haven't slipped up, if A and C both carry the "5 long parallel lines" signal value then B must also, but otherwise B need not.

Put this together with the NOT-gate and wires above and you have... a way to construct generalised boolean expressions using railway puzzles.

This is relevant because it proves railway puzzles are NP-hard, which means there is in general no good algorithm known for solving them !

Of course, I missed lots of necessary formality out of the above proof. Not least: how come I can add '#' into the problem ? Well... you'll notice I only use them in rectangular blocks. These can be formed like this:


 OSSSSSSO
 SOSOOSOS
 SOSXXOSS
 SOOOOSOO
 SSOSSOOO
 SOSSSSOS
 OSSSSSSXSS
        S
        S



Where the trailing lines of Ss are guaranteed to have rails running along them rather than across them.

Or similar blocks. The point being that whenever there's a unique way to traverse a given structure it acts like a solid barrier.

(Oops, sorry, got a bit carried away !)
[User Picture]
From:ericklendl
Date:September 24th, 2002 01:26 pm (UTC)

Re: Railroad Tracks

(Link)
My god. And I mean that strictly in the polytheistic sense of the word. Might it have made your life a little easier if I'd said "I haven't yet encountered one which I considered hard?"

That is a genuinely fascinating and almost entirely incomprehensible line of thought. :-)
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:September 24th, 2002 02:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Railroad Tracks

(Link)
<grin>

Don't worry - I mostly played around with that for my own amusement. jiggery_pokery would expect nothing less of me than to pollute his LJ with inexcusably sloppy mathematical gibberish !
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:September 24th, 2002 04:25 pm (UTC)

Re: Railroad Tracks

(Link)
Absolutely. It's nice to know that I don't have a monopoly over the inexcusably sloppy mathematical gibberish in my own LJ.

Whether it's correct or not is completely irrelevant. (Somehow, I would rather bet that it was correct than that it wasn't. Not much, though.)

Y'know, we really oughta get Wei-Hwa in on this - he probably eats this sort of thing for breakfast...

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