I am a smidgeon down on Flash animations at the moment, having seen too many too recently which turned out to be stealth horror sickos. However, brakusjs, who has an excellent record on such things, plugged "My Sweet Darlin'" in his LJ. Might it be the new Irrational Exuberance, only more family-friendly? Could be. Highly recommended if you like at least two or more of the following: silly Flash videos, pseduo-Japanese things, DDR, cartoon cows, cartoon fruit. A content warning for strobing images applies to the photosensitive epileptics in the house.)
OK, we have concluded that the World Puzzle Championship is a good thing. (Or, at least, everyone who is reading this second part probably has done.) It's interesting to consider how the event is financed. Essentially, each country who participates must pay for a membership of the World Puzzle Federation at €500 per year. (More for the richer countries who can afford it.) This money, plus whatever sponsorship can be raised, goes towards subsidising the World Puzzle Championship events. There is a rule in place that the total package of entry fee, hotel costs, meal costs, entertainment and associated shenanigans can be no more than $400 for each of the four members of each team and also the captain - though if spectators, spouses or other guests accompany the team then they pay market rates, which are typically something like $600 or $700.
So what does a member get in return? Principally they get the right to publish the puzzles from the World Puzzle Championships in their country - after all, this is a corpus of cracking, world-class logic puzzles. This also tends to mean that the only organisations with sufficient reason to join are companies which produce puzzles in magazines, books, newspapers or theoretically web sites. The UK had a member in 2000, but we haven't found anyone willing to pay the membership fee, let alone sponsor our entry fees, ever since. Work continues on this. The World Puzzle Federation is a very switched-on governing body - at the moment, it's small, friendly and doesn't have very many contentious decisions to make, rather than the political nightmare organisations governing some other contests.
However, it does mean that I generally can't point you to a comprehensive archive of puzzles in case you're wondering what sorts of puzzles are posed. Something like 10% of the puzzles from each year's WPC will be posted on the Internet as a sample - to get more, you're going to have to buy them. The US sponsors, Random House, have produced good books of WPC puzzles for many years: 1992, 1993-4, 1995-6, 1997-8 and 1999-2000. Also on the WPF site are reports of the older championships, many of which contain free sample puzzles which you can try. However, at a slightly more generally accessible level is the 2002 US Qualifying test and Matthew Daly's site discusses the solution techniques for some of the other qualification tests.
With this in mind, I would encourage you to strongly think about trying the US online qualifying test next year, wherever in the world you are. Even if you don't make your country's team, the qualifying test itself is a lot of fun and a chance to solve puzzles hard against the clock for two and a half hours. It's free and open to everyone regardless of country. If you're in Britain and you try out then you stand an excellent chance of making the team - we've had literally six or fewer entrants for four places for each of the past three years. In contrast, if you're from the USA and trying this, then I'm afraid you're more or less hosed before you start because competition for places on the US team is so incredibly tough.
The reason for that is that the USA team is an absolute powerhouse, undefeated since 1997 and indeed winners of seven of the ten championships to date. The Czech Republic have won the other three (and indeed came second in their home fixture last year) which makes them the clear contenders to the throne, though the Dutch team have always been snapping at the big boys' heels and we hear great things about the Germans, the French and the Belgians. One day, Britain will be up there too. One day...
A large part of the continued success of the US team is one Wei-Hwa Huang. About half the people who read this seem to know him already, so I'm not sure that it's worth going into much detail, but for those who do not have the pleasure of his acquaintance I shall elaborate. He has won the individual championship rather more than his fair share of times - specifically four and I maintain that it probably ought to be five - with very near misses in his off years. What sort of company employs the world's finest brains these days? As it happens, it's Google. No wonder it's so good at what it does. (I read that it gets an average of 600 applications for each of its jobs, which is approaching film-star levels.) On top of that, Wei-Hwa plays board games (old page), pinball (another old page), contributes to Memepool and even writes fan fiction, though I'm not familiar with the Koko wa Greenwood source material that is his canon. In short, he is One Of Us who just happens to be bloody good at what he does. Yes, he's even very pleasant company. This might well start to approach idol-worship, but this is one of the rare cases where the recipient is worth it.
However, the stats show that Wei-Hwa is on a losing streak of two, his '97-'99 domination having been ended by the 2000 and 2001 champ Ulrich Voigt of Germany. If Ulrich wins again this year, then the WPC fanboys (that would be me and ericklendl) will have to consider whether the Huang Dynasty has been overtaken by the Voigt Hegemony. We shall see. The Czech Republic too have their own superstar, Robert Babilon, the winner in '93 and '96 and a permanent fixture within the top ten - more often than not, the top four - over the last nine years. Oh, and you can never rule out Niels Roest from the Netherlands or Zack Butler from the USA who are always top contenders, ready to take the final step given the opportunity. (I'd love to see what Britain's David McNeill could do on the world stage; he's Britain's most realistic world-class puzzle participant.) Of course, the championship is restricted to those who enter and it's quite likely that there's some Fields Medallist or ultra-high-IQ-society wonk who just hasn't discovered the existence of the competition yet and who would (will?) take less than six months to become familiar with and fast at the type of puzzle on offer. Exciting times, people.
Now this second half comes so late that the two-member UK team have actually sent through a brief report from the first day's puzzles. In what might possibly be a world exclusive, I can reveal that the Finnish marking is rather more laid-back than that of previous years and that, after the first two rounds, Ulrich Voigt is doing a 2000 Huang-esque demolition job on the pack. Furthermore, we have an unusual pairing at the head of the team competition - Germany are leading from the Netherlands. Where are you, Wei-Hwa? More news as we get it. Nick and Ken are both in the fortieth-to-fiftieth area, which is excellent considering the strength of competition; I presume that the costly trip to Finland has put off the more marginal wannabes (like yours truly) from competing and has ensured that the people who have made it are the real devotees. I can't imagine that the average standard of the competition can ever have been as high as this.
For those of us not at the heights of the WPC gold standard, there's the question of where else to find interesting puzzles on the 'net. Recommendations are definitely sought here. There is the quarterly PQRST competition (not really an acronym) in which many of the big names compete. You get a week to stew over ten very difficult WPC-esque logic puzzles of various types - the optimisation ones are known to be particularly tough. The third installment of PQRST is coming up at some point in October; watch this space. Alternatively, have a look at the first two PQRST episodes for some more samples to try.
I can also recommend the beautiful Grey Labyrinth with scads of very clever puzzles (mostly riddles) and an impressive, relatively high-powered discussion community. Indeed, the Reader Games section is particularly imaginitive. A huge number of games of Mafia (aka Werewolf) are played here, which probably ought not to work, but evidently apparently does. There are correspondence games of remarkable chess variants, Diplomacy games and fairly freeform RPGs. Most interestingly (to me, at least!) there are a number of attempts to emulate modern upscale game shows throughout, with big games replaced by unusual puzzles aimed at the relatively high level which the community attracts. Not all the games seem particularly successful, but the attempts are a lot more imaginitive than most. I am gently impressed. (Incidentally, it's remarkable how many online games of Survivor and The Mole there are, with almost no contact between those communities and the communities who play online versions of studio-based game shows - but that's a topic for another day.)
My attitude towards puzzles may not be quite as positive as you would expect from someone who has been to the WPC twice, has written a puzzle book, run two puzzle hunts and so on. These days, I'm more interested in the clever, different and unusual ideas behind the puzzles than actually solving them. Sometimes I get good ideas for interesting, reasonably sizeable, puzzles and have to work out what to do with them. I'm probably going to run some more puzzle hunts somewhere in the country in the future - indeed, I've volunteered to help write and run a hunt at Nimbus 2003, the first big Harry Potter symposium (compromise term between academic conference and fan convention) taking place in Orlando, FL next July. I suspect it will be relatively puzzle-light and story-heavy, but it promises to be interesting all the same. Then again, I do have some thoughts about puzzly games that it might be interesting to run within this LiveJournal some day. Lots of entertaining possibilities to think about there...