Sunday, December 27, 2009

Worst. Puzzle. Ever.

It breaks my heart to write this post because the puzzle in question was 1) very expensive and 2) given to me by someone very dear to me who doesn't have a lot of disposable income. I hope he never sees this.

At first glance, the Isis puzzle looks very promising. It bills itself as the world's hardest puzzle, though I personally give that title to Scott Fredrickson's jigsaw puzzles. The packaging is beautiful, and the production quality appears to be very high. The puzzle comes in what looks like (but isn't really) a black lacquer wooden box with a metal clasp. Just the box is better made (and probably more expensive) than most puzzles. The box is embossed with "ISIS I" in silver lettering above a hologram sticker with what appears to be a serial number (or maybe it's a clue!)

Opening the box reveals a metal sphere about three inches in diameter and weighing about a pound. It feels dense, hefty, solid. Around the circumference of the sphere are three metal bands engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphics. On the bottom of the sphere is, again engraved, a ten-digit number (which turns out to be -- I'm not giving anything away here -- the actual serial number). On the top of the sphere is a button that goes down about a half a centimeter when you press it but has no other immediately discernible effect. The metal bands with the hieroglyphics turn with a satisfying clicking sound. The thing positively oozes mystery and the promise of an exciting intellectual adventure.


The black lacquer box comes packaged inside a cardboard box, which also contains a very thin pamphlet. One might be forgiven for thinking that this pamphlet is the instruction booklet, but no such luck. It is in fact simply an advertisement for other puzzles in the series, and directions on "How to start your adventure." There follows an eight-step (!) process for logging on to the company's web site in order to get the instructions. And the process requires you to reveal your full name, your mailing address, your phone number, your email address, and the serial number of your Isis before you are allowed in.

It is at this point that you might recall that there was a red seal on the cardboard box that you had to break in order to open it. And on that red seal was what is essentially a shrink wrap EULA:

"If you break this seal to accept The ISIS challenge there is no turning back. The ISIS cannot be returned after this seal is broken or its box is opened. Thank you."

So the situation you find yourself in is this: you have just paid well north of three digits for "the world's hardest puzzle", you have broken the seal so that you can no longer get your money back, and only then do you learn for the first time that you have to turn over your personal information to the company in order to find out what you're supposed to do with the damn thing. You are at this point, though I'm sure most people won't realize it, the victim of a bait-and-switch scam. That personal information you're being asked to provide is valuable, and for the company to withhold an essential part of the product you just bought until you hand it over is shameful at best. In my opinion, the fact that you don't find this out until you break the seal and render the product unreturnable makes it extortion. (If anyone from Sonic Warp is reading this, in my emails to you I used the term "blackmail". That was a mistake. Extortion is the correct term. I regret the error.)

But let's not quibble over terminology. Let's suppose that you do not share my obsession with keeping personal information out of the hands of unknown parties, and that you consider handing over your information in exchange for the instruction booklet to be a fair trade. What happens then? Well, I went ahead and registered (with a false identity). I got my user name and password, but when I tried to log in it didn't work! Instead I got the singularly useless error message, "Illegal input characters. Please remove and resubmit."

Illegal input characters? Say what? I just cut-and-pasted my user ID and password (both of which consist of nothing but letters and numbers) from the email you sent me. Exactly which "illegal characters" do you want me to remove?

At this point I was fed up, so I punted and got the Isis instruction manual from the web. The manual is pretty uninformative, but it does contain ten clues. The clues are encrypted. (You can buy the decryption keys from the company's web site. Was I surprised? No, I was not.)

Warning: spoilers follow. If you want the unalloyed thrill of solving the Isis without cheating, stop reading here.

Fortunately, the clues are encrypted using simple substitution ciphers. It took me just a few minutes to crack them using this handy dandy tool. (The decrypted clues have also been published on the web if you care to look.) I also found that the solution is out there too. The clues turned out to be pretty useless, and by this time I was getting pretty fed up, so I took a peek.

I need to digress here and say a few words about what makes a good puzzle. Puzzle composition is part art and part science. A good puzzle has to be hard enough to be challenging but not so hard as to be effectively impossible. But there's more to a puzzle than mere challenge. Lots of things are challenging. Solving partial differential equations, for example, is quite challenging, but you'd have to be a pretty hard core geek to consider PDEs to be good recreational puzzles. What distinguishes a good puzzle from a merely difficult challenge? There are four things:

1. The objective has to be clear and easy to understand without special training.

2. The rules under which the objective is to be achieved have to be clear and understandable without special training.

3. The challenge presented by a puzzle must be primarily intellectual in nature, not physical. Juggling, for example, is challenging, has a clear objective, and operates under clear rules. But it's not a puzzle.

And finally:

4. The challenge must arise as a direct result of the structure of the puzzle and not from some obscured secret.

To illustrate this last point, imagine a modern re-invention of the classic Rubik's Cube puzzle where the faces are not just colored stickers but little color LED screens. Every time you make a move, the colors of all the faces on the entire cube change. Moreover, the moves are not reversible: if you start with a virgin cube, make a move and then undo it, the result is a scrambled cube.

Just convincing yourself that this variation is solvable at all would be no easy feat, let alone actually solving it. Now imagine that you've spent a fair amount of time twiddling this new cube trying to discern some pattern in the color changes without success. In frustration, you decide to punt and look at the solution. Imagine how you would feel if the solution turned out to be:

Take the cube and whack it against a hard surface. Twirl it (the whole cube, not one of the faces) clockwise in the air a few times. Turn the whole cube upside down. Then recite Lewis Carrol's "Jabberwocky" backwards seven times (speak clearly so that the cube's internal microphone can pick up the sound of your voice). Congratulations! You have solved the Rondam Cube!

Your reaction might be something along the lines of, "'da f*ck?" And rightfully so. And yet, except for the bit about reciting Jabberwocky backwards, that is in fact the solution to the Isis sphere!!!, or at least the first few steps. No, I am not joking. Whack. Whirl. Tip. That is actually the answer. This is because the actual locking mechanism (oh, I forgot to mention that the objective is to open the sphere) is completely internal and hidden and involves moving ball bearings around on tracks and dislodging them from magnets. Those rings with the hieroglyphics on them? Completely inoperative. Just decoration. Red herrings. Very expensive, carefully machined red herrings that ride on high-tolerance bearings. But red herrings nonetheless.

If that had been all there was to it, I might have just written the whole thing off as nothing more than a white elephant. Unfortunately it was not to be. As they say in the trade: but wait! There's more!

When I tried to open my Isis according to the procedure I found on the web, it didn't work. I tried all manner of whacking and whirling and even recited Jabberwocky just for good measure (amazing how much that poem sounds like cursing when you say it backwards). No luck. My Isis remained stubbornly closed. I wasn't even able to get to the so-called "intermediate stage" where you get a little bit of tactile feedback that you're on the right track. Since I had seen a video of the Isis being opened I knew a bit about the internal mechanism, and all indications were that my Isis was somehow defective.

So I wrote an email to the company asking them to exchange it. To their credit, they responded very quickly (on a weekend even!), and said that yes, they would repair or replace it. But there was a catch: if it turned out that the Isis was not defective, I would have to pay for their time, and for shipping and handling. Which sounds fair enough, until you consider that they will be the final arbiters of whether the Isis was broken or not. And given that they had already demonstrated that they had no compunctions about extorting personal information from their customers, I didn't see any reason to believe that they would have compunctions about telling me that my Isis was in fine working order (and that I therefore had to pay to get it back) regardless of its actual condition. So as I write this we are at an impasse, and my Isis appears destined to remain closed forever.

In my email I also expressed my displeasure over having the instruction manual withheld in order to extort personal information. I asked them to stop doing that. They refused, saying that:

All registered information that we hold is only used if you tick the relevant box, otherwise it is only used to update you as a puzzle owner on new product updates and or to provide support and access to the isis adventure. We never disclose your information to 3rd parties and if you ask us not to send you updates on the puzzle you already own we delete your information from our system. Again we have only ever been asked to do this a handful of times. Please let me know if you wish to have your information deleted from our system. If you ask for this to be done, please ensure you have accurate details of return address for the product your sending to us as we will not have a record on our database for you. The reason we ask you to download the instruction book, is so that you have the most updated instructions. Hard copies can often go out of date.

To this I ask... how can an instruction manual for a mechanical puzzle go out of date? (And who said anything about hard copies?)

As long as we're asking rhetorical questions, why do they require me to provide my mailing address and my phone number and my name? Why is my email address not enough to keep me up to date? Why do they feel the need to be so paternalistic? Do they not think that I am capable of going to their web site myself to check for updates if I want the latest scoop?

As an aside, it is worth noting that when you don't "tick the relevant box" you get a Javascript alert complaining that you haven't checked the box, and offering you a free clue if you do. So even if they respect the user's wishes in this regard, the choice is coerced.

But I digress. There is a much more interesting question to be asked: why would they risk the ire of people like me who value their privacy (and write blogs) when they surely must know that such people are among their target demographic?

Why indeed.

One possibility is that they are simply stupid. They have already demonstrated that they are very bad puzzle designers, so maybe they are just bad marketeers too. Maybe they really believe their own rhetoric. Maybe they really believe that they provide a better customer experience and more value for the money (and it's a lot of money by puzzle standards) if they make absolutely sure that they know each and every customer by name and have a complete dossier on them. That possibility cannot be ruled out.

But there is another, more sinister possibility, that also cannot be ruled out: perhaps they are not in the business of selling puzzles.

Consider this database they are building up. For every customer, they know the person's name, address, phone number, and email address. And they know something much more important: every one of these people was affluent enough (or knew someone affluent enough) to spend a three-digit sum on a puzzle in the middle of the worst economic downturn in living memory. And because you can't register unless you've bought a puzzle and obtained an engraved serial number, their list will be unpolluted by pretenders and wannabes. Because of the way they have set this up, every name on that list will be a certifiable rich person.

That is one mighty valuable list. It is a telemarketer's wet dream. It would be stupid of them not to sell it. And yes, as I've already conceded, it's quite possible they are stupid. But if they aren't stupid then they're duplicitous, if not outright evil. I don't see any other possibilities.

Interestingly, there's actually an experiment one can do to try to determine which of the two possibilities is actually the case. If their actual product is not puzzles but high-quality lists of certifiably affluent people to which to which one might want to market other high-priced goods, one might expect them to take certain precautions against their true intentions being discovered. In particular, they might want to guard against someone like me who, having their suspicions raised about their intentions, might want to do something sneaky like, say, inject a false name into their list. For example, I might try to register my puzzle not under my real name but under an assumed name chosen just for this purpose, say "John H. Doe". If John H. Doe starts to get junk mail then, assuming I haven't used that name anywhere else, that would be proof that the name came from their list. And that might cause them problems down the road.

What precautions might they take against someone doing something like this? Well, one thing they might do is to allow a given serial number to be registered only once. This makes it less likely that someone will infect their database with a false name because a person would have to realize before they took their one shot at registration that something unsavory might be afoot and that they should take precautions.

On the other hand, if their intentions were honorable they would have no reason to prevent the same serial number from being registered more than once. People might want to sell their puzzles to someone else. Surely the company's professed concern about their customers having up-to-date manuals should extend to people who acquire their puzzles secondhand?

Of course I did this experiment. And unsurprisingly, it would not let me register twice, saying "That serial number is already registered under a different email address." If there's a benign explanation for that, I can't think what it could be.

For all these reasons I reluctantly award the Sonicwarp Isis Adventure the title of Worst Puzzle Ever. I take no joy in this. I just think potential buyers have a right to know what they might be getting into.


Maht said...

ah ye olde "we won't sell your name to 3rd parties" trick.

You might not sell my name but you might sell the whole company, then the 3rd becomes the 1st.

It's as big as the 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' lie because *we can't see into the future'.

I'll do a Godwins and tell you about Dutch Jews in 1930. 112,000 happily, and maybe proudly, ticked "Judaism" on the census, after all Holland is a nice friendly place and they had earned their acceptance with blood in the Napoleonic wars.

Oops, bad move.

"This approach appears to have been used in the Netherlands when small-area tabulations of population data by religion from the 1930 Dutch census made up one of several data sources used in the development of the so-called 'dot maps' of Amsterdam," he says. "These maps, which showed areas of the city where the density of the Jewish population was the highest, were used in planning Nazi-inspired attacks on some of these neighborhoods in February 1941."

1930 : 111,917
1941 : 154,887
1947 : 14,346

SnowmanInTheSun said...

That's not very business savvy, companies should respect peoples privacy a little more. You could try getting a PO box for the address, using a fake name and using a Disposable Email.

Ben Gutierrez said...

Thank you for this post. I've been considering buying this "puzzle", so now I'm glad that I didn't.

Ron said...

> You could try getting a PO box for the address, using a fake name and using a Disposable Email.

I did. That's when I got the "Illegal input characters" error.

Bram Cohen said...

Yeah, the problem with puzzles is that people buy them without knowing if they're any good, so it's all based on marketing, and most people who do get them find them impossible to solve and just look up the solution anyway, so there being no reasonable logical approach to the thing doesn't make much practical difference.

That said, there is a genre of puzzles called puzzle boxes which are all about being black boxes. I'm not into them for the reasons you outlined, although some serious puzzle people are really into them. I generally refer to them as trick opening boxes rather than puzzles, and appreciate them as clever locking mechanisms, some of which are very ingenious. But even among people who are into such things using magnets to force the puzzle to be whacked hard against something is generally consider lame.

If you'd like a much better puzzle I recommend Hanayama puzzles. They're also in metal, very well constructed, and are actually good puzzles. I particularly recommend this one -

Full disclosure: I invented this puzzle :-)

mebigfatguy said...

Sorry, I'm a strong believer if your first reaction. Almost all human behavior can be ascribed to stupidity. In fact, I'd say you have to present me with overwhelming evidence before I'd believe any action by any person or company was anything other than complete idiocy.

StoneCypher said...

It's not extortion either.

Listen, I understand your frustration with this poor business, but trying to make it sound worse than it is by being melodramatic and slapping the titles of crimes which don't fit onto it isn't just childish and stupid, but it's also illegal (if you and they are both in the states, it's libel; if it's international, there're a lot of things it might be.)

Let me be clear with you here. There is no crime. This is ridiculously bad business, but it isn't criminal, and you cannot make claims otherwise in public like this ethically.

There is no extortion. Extortion means taking money or property through the use of physical violence or threat theretowards. Your personal information is not property, despite that it is valuable; there has been no threat of violence towards you; you could have walked away. (That you apologized for saying blackmail is indicative of the problem: you don't know what you're talking about. Blackmail is merely the common term for extortion. You've not changed what you said, except to make it sound more officious to yourself.)

And just to head off

There is no fraud here: the box didn't promise you anything which you did not receive. Similarly this is not false advertising.

There is no theft here: you've not had anything stolen from you, nor anything taken from you, nor anythign you paid for withheld from you. Take a breath before you mention the instructions; just because you expect something unmentioned as part of a transaction doesn't mean theft has occurred when you don't receive it, even if said something seems common sense to you.

There has also been (since you seem so happy throwing around false accusations that are transparently nonsense) no burglary, no assault, no rape and no murder. You have not had arson committed against you, nor have you been racially abused.

So take a deep breath and remember that words have meanings, and that those meanings do not exist to be bent any time you need a bit of a let-off to feel aggrieved.

Extortion indeed.

You should be ashamed of yourself for likening yourself to the victims of violence over the instructions for a game, in exactly the same way that a person should feel ashamed for saying that their game raped them.

Pitiable part about it is that if you don't have the good sense to be ashamed about patent dishonesty, which is what you're angry about at the game company, you're just going to refuse to post the comment or have a rail about how I've barraterized or victimized you in some fashion.

Pro tip: I _also_ haven't extorted you.

Grow up, chappy. It's your own stupid fault for spending that much money on a luxury without doing even a breathless gasp of research.

They may be bad businesspeople for trying to collect your personal data, but you're an unethical person for making false and defamatory legal claims of them in public.

In the balance, you're a hell of a lot worse than are they.

mebigfatguy said...

For instance

the click to enlarge link, creates an image that is smaller than is shown on the original page.

Ron said...

> Extortion means taking money or property through the use of physical violence or threat theretowards.

Different dictionaries define extortion in different ways. The definition I'm using is "the use of force or threats to obtain something of value." Neither physical violence nor theft of property is necessary for there to be extortion. (See below.) In this case, the threat is the withholding the manual, and the thing of value is personal information. Yes, these are penny-ante stakes, but this is also just a blog. It's not like I'm asking the DA to file charges. (For the record, the company is, as far as I can tell, in the U.K. and I -- thankfully -- am in the U.S. where the U.K.'s draconian libel laws do not apply.)

> Blackmail is merely the common term for extortion.

That's what I thought, which is why I used the term in the first place. But it turns out not to be true. Blackmail is a particular kind of extortion. It is extortion where the threat is to reveal information about the victim that the victim wishes to remain secret. Note that no physical violence is involved.

For the record, I have no idea whether what the company is doing is illegal or not. I am not a lawyer. But in my opinion, what they are doing is clearly unethical, and I don't think there's anything wrong with calling them out on it.

I don't really want to quibble over terminology, but if you can think of a more appropriate term than "extortion" I'm always open to suggestions.

Ron said...

> the click to enlarge link, creates an image that is smaller than is shown on the original page

Yes, but that's clearly just an oversight, whereas what Sonicwarp is doing is deliberate. They have taken great pains to make their registration process work the way it does. The two things are in no way comparable.

I truly do not know whether Sonicwarp is dishonorable or merely stupid. But the amount of stupidity that would be required to account for Sonicwarp's actions is much, much higher than that required to account for an incorrect image. The required suspension of disbelief is correspondingly higher.

lo_fye said...

Stonecypher - why don't you consider personal info to be property? The MPAA & RIAA sue people all the time for sharing ephemeral copies of their movies. Publishers sue for sharing ephemeral copies of their books. How is this different from selling ephemeral copies of my info?

Paul Hobbs said...

> It's your own stupid fault for spending that much money on a luxury without doing even a breathless gasp of research.

He got it as a gift.

Jean said...

I steered away from the original ISIS because of the sinister appearance hookin to part with further cash. A colleague who works near there HQ in Cheshire UK notes that they o longer inhabit the office and that in fact they have moved to a private house - so perhaps they are struggling and desparate!!

Jean said...

Oh and I forgot to add that the company appears to be in meltdown too!

Andrew said...

There are always 2 sides to a story, and it would appear that conclusions have been based on only 1 side so far.

1. We are far from meltdown, but with no thanks form a disgruntled ex director(VC)
2. All isis puzzles are now in new boxes and new designs.
3. Members get huge discounts as a thankyou for the support.
4. We manufacture from light industrial unit in Shropshire.
5. Several new puzzles being launched this year.
6. The disgruntled Millionaire ex director of sonicwarp has just bought bigger and more expensive business premises in Manchester, so not all doom and gloom then !
7. Please email directly if you have any further questions.
8. Lets all try and move on...

Jean said...

...but it seems that both sides seem to agree on sharp practice!

Oh well, best of luck to you both.

Jay said...

I've just come across this piece and it's highly informative.

As some people may be aware I used to be the code/riddle writer for Sonicwarp until I left (as what even Wikipedia called Unresolvable Differences), due primarily to Andy's underhand tactics.

I watched as Andy 'cheated' people out of their winning by coming up with some bogus excuses.

The woman who won the Christmas Isis recieved £250 because she wasn't willing to travel to Chester (from South England) to have her photo taken at her own expense.

The gent who won the Liverpool Isis received nothing (as Andy said he cheated and refused to pay out).

The programmer who coded Pyrahunters received nothing for his work (despite being contracted for $10,000 over a period of time), and was constantly lied to whilst he still provided support. Maher was a young coder in Egypt who was going to use the money to buy his first car.

One of the former Sales people left whilst being owed something like £27,000 in commission fees (this is what he told me on MSN after leaving the company so I'm not 100% sure of that situation).

Andy is a master of misdirection (the old Smoke and Mirrors), even he would admit to that (being some form of master magician with ties to the Magic Circle (or some such crap)).

In short: In my opinion, anyone who has had dealings with Andrew Reeves has come off very badly. I would advise anyone to steer clear.

If you need further information you're welcome to contact me and I'll give as much as possible (and put you in touch with the other people if needed).


Jay (aka Kelticfox)

eric v said...

So Sonicgames have 'cheated' people but I see that they are still very much alive and releasing the next puzzle, Copernisis see in October - if they were that bad surely they would have been taken to court or ceased trading? I rather think that you have sour grapes about the whole company and their success!

Ron said...

> if they were that bad surely they would have been taken to court or ceased trading?

Making a shoddy product is not against the law. So on what grounds would anyone take them to court?

> I rather think that you have sour grapes about the whole company and their success!

Yeah, that must be it. I just can't stand to see anyone succeed.

eric v said...

I guess you misunderstood me - I meant that if they had ripped their employees off they would have been taken to court for unpaid earnings this being a legitimate response? That's why I am sceptical of 'Kelticfox' Nothing to do with product as that is clearly subjective...

Ron said...

Ah. Yes, I misunderstood. You're commenting on a pretty old thread so I assumed it was meant for me.

I should probably tweak my setting to display the date on comments.

Jay said...

Actually they have been taken to court, but have been a little bit crafty.

Sonicwarp Ltd is now part of Sonic Games Ltd. All the assets, stock etc were stripped and transferred to Sonic Games (this was done without even the other directors knowing!).

In February 2010, a former engineering company filed a CCJ for £13,300. Sonicwarp has ceased trading so no money is able to gained.

I know the other director (Anthony Heaton) filed a civil case, but was advised to close it as there is a concern about lack of tangible assets, so the company would be unable to actually pay the money the court says.

I also know that Sonicwarp owes in the ballpark of £52,000 to the original Isis puzzle engineers (Xavier Engineering).

The trick seems to be that starts a new company, eventually moves the cash and assets to the new company and ceases trading on the old one.

There is also ANOTHER company that has been created by the same directors (except Andrew Reeves isn't the Managing Director anymore, his girlfriend is (she's the Sales Director of Sonic Games currently), so I expect to happen again.

Sour grapes? Erm.... I left. And if success is the definition of having about £100,000 worth of debt, then sure I'm jealous XD I'm small fish (all the designers are) compared to what is owed to engineering companies.

You're always welcome to contact the people I've said above. Obviously they know more then I do.

laserchalk said...

I'm glad you made this. You saved me a lot of money.

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