March 13, 2005

Crash reports

Erik says he doesn't send crash reports to Apple. That's unfortunate. Unless there's highly confidential information in your crash log -- say, you're working on a new application that you don't want anyone at Apple to know anything about -- what's the harm? It's much easier for Apple to determine whether a particular crash log shows up multiple times across millions of users (by aggregating the data) than for any one user to make that judgment on his own. And sure, Apple may conclude that it's a bug in the application and not in the system frameworks, but it's a shame if anyone wants to prevent Apple from making that determination in the first place.

In other words, if you want to make Mac OS X a better product, send in those crash logs. Hitting cancel instead of sending them in doesn't help anyone.


I just realized -- and I've been reminded of this but forgot about it -- that I never wrote anything about PuzzleHunt 8, which I attended at Microsoft a few weeks ago. Since it's been so long since that weekend that I've already received the nifty T-shirt for it I'm a bit fuzzy on the details, but it was certainly a lot of fun, as PuzzleHunt always is.

PuzzleHunt is a weekend-long puzzle solving competition held at Microsoft roughly once a year. It's based on the MIT Mystery Hunt, but I'm afraid I don't know too much about the differences between the two because I don't know much about MIT's event. Here's how it works at Microsoft:

You put together a team of up to twelve people. (I think eight have to be MS employees, but I'm not sure about that.) You reserve a conference room or two for the entire weekend, and early Saturday morning show up in a large meeting room. The folks running the Hunt open with something introducing you to the plot and start out by giving you one or more puzzles. Your team starts solving those, and eventually -- before you're done solving the first batch -- you get more puzzles. And more. And more. The entire contest typically has roughly 25-30 puzzles. Some of the puzzles are metapuzzles, which means that you can only solve them if you've solved some set of the earlier puzzles. Sometimes there's a second round of metapuzzles which are only solvable if you've solved the first batch of metapuzzles. Eventually the best teams solve the last metapuzzle, and whoever solves it first wins the Hunt. Around 6 p.m. on Sunday all of the teams get together and the people running the show say who won and run through the solutions to all of the puzzles. Everyone has a lot of fun, and most people don't get much sleep.

We have a core group of people who play on the same team every year (centered around Nick), and we add additional people to get to twelve as needed. We usually expect to finish around 13th or so, and we met that goal this year. Out of 50 or so teams -- many more than normal -- we came in somewhere around 15th. It would've been nice to do better, of course, but I'm pretty happy.

This was a particularly good PuzzleHunt, in that we never sat around thinking that we couldn't make any progress on anything. There was always some puzzle on which seemed like we were really close to solving the next step. Also, the plot was reasonably well done and some of the puzzles were just incredibly well designed. At the opening ceremony, for example, we received a two-sided color brochure (folded like an AAA map) about Las Vegas. Some of the writing on there obviously made up a couple different puzzles, but it wasn't until many hours later that we realized that every single piece of data on the brochure was part of at least one puzzle...including a number of bits that had to be cut out and assembled into little copies of buildings in Vegas. The buildings had to be placed onto an uncut and unfolded copy of the brochure in a certain way, and when we shined a flashlight through them from the right height and the right angle -- the height and angle were given to us via some of the text, though not directly of course -- the resulting light printed out a phone extension at Microsoft, which we had to call to get credit for solving that puzzle. Wow.

I'm afraid I didn't work on the brochure, though. The best puzzle I worked on was a description by two commentators of a Scrabble match in which each of the two players bingoed every turn. (Yes, this is possible.) But it wasn't exactly a normal Scrabble match. From our perspective, it was played with M&Ms instead of letter tiles, which each color of M&M filling in for three letters (9 colors == the entire alphabet plus blanks). From the commentators' descriptions and a list of the M&Ms each player had before their turn, we had to figure out which letters each color corresponded to and how each word was laid out on the board. Lots of fun, especially because they gave us the M&Ms to play with.

Anyway, the whole weekend was a blast. If you work for Microsoft or have friends who work there, you should play next time around. And if you're looking for a team, well, we'll probably have an opening or two....