Hello from Opatija! The UK team have arrived safely at the four-star Hotel Ambasador (sic) - the sign outside has five stars, but I suspect they are in the logo, rather than in the quality. It feels firmly four-star to me, not that I'm complaining.
Last night was highly entertaining; it was wonderful to get to meet rhiannon333, with whom I turned out to have all sorts of unexpected connections. The evening included a trip to the Axum restaurant, because I have rather a habit of taking ladies called Megan out for Ethiopian food, and then showing her silly MAME ROMs. (The night's big winner was qad - Quiz And Dragons, a quiz machine with an extremely spuriously applied swords-and-sorcery theme. Those who were missing were greatly missed.
Today the UK puzzle team assembled at Heathrow terminal two; after agreeing to meet at midday, the four people arriving landside showed up at the desk at 1220, 1225, 1230 and 1235. (I was the 1230!) We were all flying Lufthansa from Heathrow to Frankfurt and Croatia Airways from Frankfurt to Zagreb. As is intended, the UK team is made up of four solvers and a captain; our fourth solver (for I am the captain) flew across from Belfast, making his total for the day three flights with three separate carriers. (All Star Alliance, though! Impressively, the hold baggage was checked through all three flights at the start and arrived safely.) Today's flight means that I have now flown out of all four Heathrow terminals, geekily enough. Terminal 3 is least worst landside, Terminal 4 is glorious airside.
Lufthansa has nice seats and good legroom, but gives you the tiniest little sandwich that you ever did see, bordering on nouvelle cuisine. Frankfurt Airport is very shiny and has bizarrely slightly elevated moving walkways. Croatia Airways run a surprisingly tight ship: very nice A319s with seats configured 3-3 and a flat-screen monitor dropping down from overhead every fourth row. Inflight entertainment was a version of the nearly-forgotten Landscape Channel - just music in the background and language in Croatian and English on the screen. Food was surprisingly decent for a 75-minute flight: a choice of ham, tuna, cheese or vegetable sandwiches, with the veggie one I picked being very acceptable, bordering on delectable. Zagreb airport is small - about 21 gates and two baggage carousels, for comparison.
A driver with a minibus picked us five, plus a Turk and two Poles apart from the rest of their team, and drove us almost two hours through deepest, darkest Croatia to here in Opatija (pronounced o-pat-EE-ya). Sadly the sun set during our flight because I got the impression that the scenery would have been extremely striking, as our motorways went through tunnels or over high bridges on average about once every three or four minutes. I look forward to seeing Croatia by day! It's also worth noting that while the hills on the toll road are very gentle, the height gained and lost is not inconsiderable; 9 °C at Zagreb Airport when we landed, 9 °C by the bay here in Opatja, but just 2 °C at the zenith of the road in between. If you're interested, cars are charged about 50 Kuna ~= £5 ~= €7 ~= $9 for 150 km of toll road, much of which has two lanes in the uphill direction and one in the downhill.
Arrived at about 10 o'clock local time (Central European, BST +1 / EDT +6), checked into our rooms (I am sharing with ericklendl again - hurrah!) and almost immediately dined in fine style. Appetiser was a plate with slices of hams and cheeses, then a bowl of meat-stock soup with noodles, then a plate of chicken (or battered fish, or beef/pork) with green beans, carrots, battered seasoned potato-cakes and a bowl of beautifully dressed salad. Dessert was slices from two different cakes. Not bad, not bad at all. The other interesting development is that I have learned that, as UK captain, I am going to be on one of the four (!) United Nations teams also attempting the puzzles. Now while I am not at all confident about my ability to solve the puzzles, even compared to my previous WPC attempts, and may finish very close to the basement, I shall not be letting down the country. Instead I shall be letting down the United Nations; accordingly, I shall sleep more easily tonight.
There is Internet access here, but not the best. The two choices are to use the Internet terminals in the corner of reception at 1 Kn for 3 minutes (about £2 per hour - not at all bad) or to use the hotel's wireless network. The latter is expensive - a voucher for 30 minutes of use will set us back 35 Kn - but at least I can write my blog entries at leisure offline and just nip online to upload them. As a consequence, you can reasonably assume that I won't get to check mail or see any replies that are being posted. Accordingly I will have to send snogs to dezzikitty through my blog. Love ya, babe. :-D
The puzzles look pretty much as planned, except a rather confusing-looking addition that apparently the scores in the team rounds will count four times as much as expected. There is an interpretation which suggests that the team round scores will go towards the individual scores too, but this is so counterintuitive that I cannot believe it.
The final round procedure has been unexpectedly changed, too; in order to extend the "13th championship" theme further, the top 13 will participate in the quarter-finals and beyond. 13 in quarter-finals is unusual, so I shall explain. The quarter-finals and beyond are going to be contests between three solvers. Seeds 2 to 13 from the first two days' play will compete in four seeded quarter-finals to produce four quarter-final winners. These four, plus the #1 seed, plus the best second-placed quarter-finalist, will be the six semi-finalists for two seeded semi-finals. Take the two semi-final winners and the best semi-final second place and you have your three finalists. I can see what they're trying to do here; it's a bit strained just for the purposes of getting another 13-connection in there, but it should work pretty well in practice.
However, a bigger change is that the quarter-finals and beyond are no longer races - it's no longer a case of "first one to declare finishing stops the contest and whether they are correct or not determines the result". There is a fixed time limit (13 minutes for quarter and semi, 26 minutes for final) and a fixed number of puzzles for the final. It doesn't matter how long it takes you to complete the puzzles, just the number of puzzles you have correct. It's quite possible that two or more contestants will tie as to how many puzzles were solved; rank from the first two days splits ties, with match time being ignored. Accordingly, in order to displace a higher seed in the finals, you need to answer more questions correctly than they do; the higher seed can guarantee safe passage with perfection regardless of time taken. Probably an improvement in terms of lowering the probability of the #1 seed being beaten, but not as exciting a format. Again, not sure whether it's better or worse, just different.
In short: all happy, all well, but rather more puzzles are in my future than I had predicted. Still, the pressure is off, so I know I'm going to enjoy myself. :-)
ETA am of 13th: OMG the view! O2M2G2 the breakfast!! (Pizza, fried peppers, sausage, more cheeses and antipasti, breads, yoghurts, pastries, fruit, blancmange...)