Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Isis update

I got my Isis puzzle open, and having now had a chance to thoroughly inspect the mechanism I discovered two interesting things: the solution on YouTube doesn't actually work, at least not on my puzzle, and the Isis really is every bit as bad a puzzle as I thought.

Warning: spoilers follow.

The internal mechanism of the Isis would make Rube Goldberg proud. The sphere consists of two hemispheres that are screwed together with an inverse thread so you have to turn the halves clockwise in order to open the Isis. The two halves are normally locked with a locking plate that is held in position by a spring. The button on the top of the puzzle is used to push the locking plate unto the unlocked position so that the two halves can be unscrewed. There are two obstacles to moving the locking plate: there are two ball bearings that normally block the movement of the plate. These need to be maneuvered into indentations in the locking plate in order to get them out of the way. And the plunger attached to the button is not quite long enough to push the locking plate into the unlocked position. In order to extend the reach of the plunger, a third ball bearing needs to be maneuvered into yet another indentation directly beneath the plunger.

It is this third ball bearing that causes all the trouble. It is normally stuck to a magnet in the upper half of the sphere, and dislodging it requires striking the sphere on a hard surface with considerable force. It turns out that the problem I was having was that I was just not whacking it hard enough. In order to make it work I had to take the sphere into my garage and hit it against a wooden workbench with about the same amount of force as it would take to drive a nail into a 2 by 4. And the worst part is that there is no way to tell if you've successfully dislodged the ball bearing from the magnet. You have to fly blind.

Once the ball bearing has been dislodged from the magnet, it has to be maneuvered through a maze that has been machined into the locking plate. This is a part of the mechanism that the YouTube video does not reveal because it is hidden behind a steel cover on the locking plate that has to be removed with a screwdriver. Maneuvering the ball bearing through this maze is the step that is supposed to be accomplished by moving the puzzle in circles a few times, but it doesn't work. The maze is too convoluted. It took me quite a while to devise a series of moves that would reliably move the ball bearing through the maze, and that was with the cover off! The resulting sequence is so subtle and convoluted that I can't even describe it in words. I would have to make a video of my own to show how it's done. I'll only do this is someone asks. It is quite possible that different Ises have different maze configurations, so my sequence may not even work on other puzzles.

Once through the maze, the ball bearing ends up in the center of the locking plate. It is not until you get to this point that you get your first bit of feedback that you've made any progress at all: when you press the button now it no longer goes down as far as it did before (because the ball bearing is in the way).

The encrypted clues call this the "halfway stage", but once you've gotten to this point the rest of the procedure is a cakewalk by comparison. All that remains is to maneuver the two other ball bearings into their indentations, which is relatively easy because they run in circular tracks. All you have to do is turn the puzzle upside down and gently "wobble" the puzzle until you can no longer hear the sound of the bearings moving around. Of course, you have to be careful not to dislodge the first bearing while you do this, which is accomplished by exerting *gentle* pressure on the plunger to hold the bearing in place. Once the two bearings are in their indentations, a firm press on the plunger will move the locking plate into the unlocked position. It will snap into place. At this point you can let go of the plunger and unscrew the two halves of the puzzle to obtain your prize, which is...

Nothing! There is, as the YouTube video shows, absolutely nothing inside the sphere besides the mechanism. And, as a final insult, it is trivially easy to lose the crucial third ball bearing. It will just fall out if you turn the puzzle the wrong way. If you should happen to be so unfortunate as to not notice that the ball bearing has fallen out and reassemble your puzzle without it, you will likely never be able to open it again. No wonder they don't accept returns once the seal is broken.


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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

This is disturbing

I have always dismissed the 9-11 Truthers as a bunch of kooks on two grounds. First, their flagship claim -- that the WTC towers were intentionally demolished -- doesn't stand up to scrutiny. (Frankly, it doesn't even pass the laugh test, but I don't want to get into that.) And second, I have a general prejudice against grand conspiracy theories because I just don't believe that people are very good at keeping secrets, and large groups of people are particularly bad at it. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the more people are involved and more time goes by, the more likely that someone will spill the beans.

But now I just watched this video of David Ray Griffin, professor emeritus of Philosophy of Religion and Theology at the Clarement School of Theology, by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) explaining how the official story about the cell phone calls from the flights hijacked on 9/11/01 couldn't possibly be true. He certainly doesn't sound like a kook, and the facts that he bases his conclusions on are all easily verified by third parties. They also pass my basic bullshit-o-meter. In particular, I believe it is true on both theoretical grounds and from firsthand experience that it is not possible to make a cell phone call from an airplane at altitude.

According to Griffin, the *official* story has quietly changed: the FBI now says that there were no (successful) calls from flight 93 or 77, which is plausible. But the problem with that is that it undermines the basis for the official story that the hijackers attacked with knives and box cutters. If there were no calls, there is no way to know what weapons were used, or indeed if any weapons were used at all, because those calls were the *only* information we had about how the attacks were carried out.

That the official story could change in such a fundamental way and not draw even passing notice from the mainstream media is very disturbing, particularly in light of the manifest failures and subsequent self-flagellation from the media about the handling of the buildup to the war in Iraq.

I am really beginning to think that there could have been a 9/11 conspiracy, not because the secret could be kept, but because the official story is so appealing -- it's such a powerful mythology -- that when inevitably the truth starts to leak no one cares.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Soft-selling atheism

David DiSalvo put together a pair of videos highlighting two contrasting styles of advocating for atheism. Guess which one I think is more effective?

Worth a look.

Video, or it didn't happen

I blogged previously about our experience riding the maglev train in Shanghai. At the time I wasn't able to post the video I had taken because I didn't have a fast internet connection. I finally got around to doing it last night. The original video is here. If that doesn't work for you I also put up a copy on YouTube, but the quality suffered a lot.

Towards the end of the clip we encounter the train on the opposing track. It gives new meaning to the aphorism "don't blink or you'll miss it".

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Xooglers rises from the ashes

Doug Edwards took down the Xooglers blog because he's working on a book about Google and didn't want to leave spoilers out there. Unfortunately, that also took down all the posts that I wrote, but Doug was kind enough to send me a copy. It's a Microsoft Word file, which normally I would not link to, but somehow Word manages to keep all the formatting and links intact. For those of you who just can't stand Word, here's a PDF and HTML.

Warning: it's 251 pages long, though a lot of that is comments.

(For those who don't know, Xooglers was a blog where Doug and I wrote about our experiences working at Google.)

[UPDATE 5/1/11] Thanks to Mayank Jain for producing a PDF with working hyperlinks! So no need to mess with the HTML or Word versions any more. (I'll keep them up for now just in case someone has linked to them.)

Please note that this document is still copyrighted by me, so please do not reproduce it without permission.