This weekend was the MIT Mystery Hunt. Last year my team (codex) won the hunt, and with it the customary prize of writing and managing next year’s hunt.

I made no attempt to look like I was contributing to the puzzle writing effort. I’ve never been any good at solving Mystery Hunt puzzles, so I didn’t expect to be any good at writing them either. I also knew that I couldn’t afford the time commitment, in a year when I really needed to make maximum forward progress on my research.

Nonetheless, I showed up on Friday hoping to help as unskilled labor, and over the course of the weekend I did occasional odd jobs of various sorts. I sang a few lines to a tune from The Producers while wearing a top hat in a kickline, judged solutions to a puzzle held at a mock formal charity event, and helped search for bugs in some of the hunt management software.

The experience overall was particularly strange because I knew, and still know, nothing about the structure of the hunt or the contents of the puzzles … and yet I knew all of the answers and many of the better-hidden secrets. In the end, it wasn’t enough. Arriving on the day of the event, I was simply too late to be of very much use, and so ill-informed that I was prone to mistakes and misunderstandings that undermined any actual contributions. Running a hunt simply doesn’t take all that many people, and the other volunteers were much better positioned to be helpful.

I’m glad I got to experience what life is like at Hunt HQ … but I’ve also learned that to participate in a meaningful way you really must commit yourself well in advance.

Ah well. Maybe in another decade.

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