This year it was Peter’s turn to put together our annual Christmas treasure hunt, and he had to come up with one that would require me, Neil, and Kelly to work together to solve.
Instead of finding a gift in his stocking, Neil found a piece of paper telling us we’d just been squirrel-mailed:
The squirrel in the picture (Buzz, not my arch-enemy Fiend Squirrel) told us “The Agents of G.N.O.M.E. are out striking against the other 99% or something, so it’s up to us squirrels to ruin your Christmas for you! We’ve stolen some very tasty presents from each of you, and the only way you’ll ever get them back is if you can solve our riddle before we manage to gnaw through the wrapping paper. And we love wrapping paper. Clue time! “From where you see me, I can see thee.”
From that we figured the clue was hidden in our frosty backyard, which was overrun this summer with squirrels. Kelly found the clue taped to a gopher target behind the rosemary bush.
The new squirrel mail told us “For every step forward, you’ll go back two! But you big hairless apes will never solve this clue! JEC UVQTA VWF PQ “NKPI”
Neil and I sussed it was simple substitution cipher, but Neil tried to use the internet to solve it. I find the internet hopeless for solving ciphers, because computers just push through the cipher with rigid algorithms, rather than thinking about possibilities and deliberate misleads. Proving my philosophy, I looked for a pattern I could use, and noticed PQ are next to each other in the alphabet, and so if I could find a two-letter word made of adjacent letters in the alphabet, like, er, “no.” Plus, each letter is simply two steps back from its cipher equivalent. From that I solved the cipher to get the rather obscure answer: HCA STORY TUC NO “LING”
Peter was absolutely sure Kelly would recognize it, but really? After some strong hinting from Peter, we learned that either or both HCA and TUC stood for a story Kelly should recognize (from her myriad stories). I just tried thinking on stories that had a word ending in -ling in them. Dumpling? Duckling? The Ugly Duckling? The Ugly Duckling by HCA, aka Hans Christian Anderson!
Peter got an ugly duck painting at a white elephant gift exchange, and it happens to double as a box. Inside the painting,we found the penguin USB drive which should have been in Neil’s stocking. On it was this file from the squirrels:
Neil manipulated the pitch down so we could try to figure it out. Peter said the kids should be able to make out the lyrics, which were at a higher frequency, but neither Neil nor I could figure it out. Finally, though guessing and more hints from Peter that it was an 80’s song from Rock Band 2, I guessed that it would be by some Billy Idol memorabilia we have.
I was right, and the next piece of Squirrel Mail said: I need this to make a bottle. http://www.tinyurl.com/78tu6ny (7:00)
At the 7 minute mark, the actress is a colleague of Peter’s known for her spectacular mispronunciations and misunderstandings, which include insisting “bagel” is pronounced “baggle,” and thinking a “fiasco” is a Mexican party. But what? Make a bottle? I only found out now that Peter had thought we could know “fiasco” is Italian for “make a bottle.” We spent at least half an hour looking through my stash of little plastic bags, to no avail. Out of desperation, I looked at Neil’s At-At Pinata, which had been too cool to break, and found the next squirrel mail next to my Feed the Domo box, which looks like a pinata itself.
The squirrel mail said “Something’s different. I can figure it out without breaking any….”
Well, that was easy! I reached into the refrigerator, where almost 2 dozen eggs were stacked in two trays on top of each other. In between the trays, we found Buzz’s Maniacal Math Test! It was 24 questions with the hint “Because being different is what matters….”
The questions included two which break Mathematica (but which Neil still tried to solve via computer, rather than by taking the tedious step-by-step process to work them out. Once again, I rest my case that human beings are still smarter at solving problems than computers.) They included questions like “the 32,156th digit of Pi,” “Date of the start 4th Crusade – Date of Battle of Hastings” and “Q# + Q# x 1 x 2 x 3.” We solved them all (except for the ones that would break Mathematica.) As it turns out, we also had to examine the eggs, put the egg trays together, and orient them so that the marker 1 was at the top left hand corner, and the marker 24 at the bottom right hand corner, and then figure out which of the eggs were hard boiled. I showed Neil and Kelly the trick for identifying hard boiled eggs without having to crack them, and marked egg numbers 2, 3, 9, 18, and 20. The corresponded to specific question numbers, giving us a series of numbers. Peter had to tell us to put them in a sequence to create a 7-digit number.
It could be a phone number, or it could not be. With the possible mortification of randomly dialing a stranger on Christmas morning, I punched the number into my cell phone. I was relieved to find out it connected to our friend (and my webmaster), Keith. I brusquely told him “You have a clue for us!” Amused, he grilled me and Neil on our identity and then asked us for the passcode to the question: “What is yellow and dangerous?” Neil, being a Hitchhiker fan, knew the answer as “42.” Keith agreed, but pointed out that a banana with a machine gun would have also have been an acceptable answer. (Keith is a Discworld fan, BTW.) Thereupon, he gave us the clue we needed, which combined with the clue 42 led us to our presents, hidden in the garage.
And so for another year, the agents of G.N.O.M.E., as well as the nefarious squirrel horde, have been thwarted, and our presents have been found. We’ll see what they try to do next year….