First, I had to get to Austin. Because work is a bit crazy, I didn’t attempt to make it for the Wednesday evening picnic and unofficial activities. Instead, I took a late flight that night to San Francisco. Most people don’t think SFO is on the way to AUS, but the airfares to Austin sucked and all the flights were on regional jets and I noticed that for about 20 bucks more I could get an extra bunch of frequent flyer miles. So SFO it was and the late flight tends to be lightly enough booked that I even got upgraded on it. The catch is that it was also delayed. The first part of the delay was probably weather related, with the plane arriving at IAD about 45 minutes late. But that was followed by a particularly stupid mechanical delay. There was a toilet flush handle not working and everyone (most notably, the captain) was fine with deferring that and just shutting off the first class lavatory. Everyone, that is, except the second shift of mechanics who came on duty just as the first shift were ready to sign off on deferred maintenance. They had to fiddle around with it for another half hour or so. And then it seems that there were a lot of people who had been rebooked due to the delay so they had to redo the weight and balance. Let’s just say that I got to my hotel (the Fairfield in Millbrae, which I used a Marriott free room certificate for) at 2 a.m.
I glanced at the departure board before leaving SFO to see what gate my morning flight to AUS would be at. And found that the flight was cancelled. I checked my email and had a rebooking notice, but I also added myself to the standby list for an earlier flight. That earlier one turned out to be oversold, so I was unsuccessful. The bottom line is that I got to AUS more than 4 hours later than I was supposed to. From the standpoint of the Con, that didn’t much matter, but it did mean I couldn’t go out to dinner with a (non-NPL) friend. While at the airport, I heard that the cancellation had been due to crew issues. So I’ve sent off an email asking for compensation. At any rate, I did make it to Austin and got a cab to the Hyatt, where I had a nicely upgraded room with a lovely view that I might have appreciated more had I actually spent any time in the room and awake. (I should also note that this was a typical atrium hotel design, which made it yet another Hyatt with terrible noise issues. Yes, they leave you earplugs, but I hate earplugs.)
Anyway, Con. The opening intros were done by having each table compose a sentence using the first letters of their noms. This made things far less painful than the usual personal trivia. It was followed by a game involving two-player teams placing letters on a grid to make words. The letters were drawn randomly and ended up with way too many difficult consonants and, in short, my partner and I completely sucked at this. It was still fun trying. After that, various over the weekend puzzles were distributed. The official program ended earlyish (maybe 10?) but that is when the real fun starts. I joined a group for a mini-extravaganza created by Spiel. After that, I played Noam’s Jeopardy game. I must have done something else (probably a trivia game) since I know I was up until 2 ish, but it’s a blank.
I still dragged myself up on Friday morning to attempt a walk-around puzzle in the park near the hotel. We were in small groups and given a tablet with clues. We got through the first part, but got tangled up in the second. It was getting hot and the instructions involved counting colored slats, rather than any particular cleverness, so we opted to give up. I did one of the over-the-weekend cryptics (Qaqaq's) with Hemlock, which was very enjoyable. Then I went off to meet a storytelling friend, Bernadette, for lunch at Threadgill’s. The food was decent and it was great to catch up with her.
Back at the hotel, I did Trazom’s cryptic with Shrdlu. I actually found that one somewhat easier. I should mention that pair solving is always a mixed bag, but in both of these, I ended up working with people who were probably at about the same skill level as I am. I first started doing a lot of cryptics back in the late 1980’s, when we had a group at work that did the ones in The Atlantic and it was very frustrating to be the beginner. I think the NPL crowd is more tolerant than my colleagues at the time were.
Friday night’s program started with Rubrick’s "Poetry by Committee" in which one person wrote a title and the other people added a line at a time with everything but the ends of the lines hidden. To give you a sample, I kept the one I did the title for.
To a Fruit Bat
Like grapes you hang with head below
Come fly away to bridge or tree!
I threw a stone, my arm was slow
Because at dusk, we’ll all be free!
And as you eat up all the gnats
Those pests you eat so hungrily
They drain the veins of Democrats
Beats a drone surveilling me.
In addition to bats, other popular themes included Texas, the heat, and puzzles. The game was entertaining and many of the results were truly funny.
I found Trick’s "Four Color Printing," which involved mixing and matching letter tiles to form words (done in pairs), to be somewhat frustrating. There was nothing wrong with the game. I just didn’t like the letters I happened to have. For the record, "I" is my least favorite vowel.
The final official activity for the evening was called "Staged Wordplay." Bluff devised a fun game with clues that used wordplay to form other words in a category you had to figure out. We ended up with a mediocre score because we completely missed one category. But it was still fun and clever.
As for the unofficial activities, I didn’t particularly plan a late night. But there were trivia games to be played. Maso’s Double’s Jeopardy (in which I was teamed with Anomaly) is always a good time, for example. The other particularly notable game was Dart’s, in which we guessed very badly on the respective difficulty of some categories. The difficulty was less in the answers than in how you had to manipulate them, which proved challenging. It was very impressive. It was also about 4 a.m. before I knew it.
Saturday morning always has the business meeting. The bottom line is that next year will be Portland, Maine and 2015 will be Vancouver. The afternoon included more puzzles / games. Willz offered up "Opposite Ends" which involved antonyms combined to make a list of words. The example had the clue "accuse" which can be broken up into "accept" and "refuse." I pair solved this with Qoz and we had answers for all of them, although two of them were wrong. Then came the very clever "Set Pieces" by Manx, which involved anagramming the given words into a category and something in it. It was challenging enough to be hard to finish in the time we had, but not so frustrating as to feel impossible. I didn’t quite get them all, but I really enjoyed it.
The big deal of Saturday afternoon is the flat competition. (Flats are a type of puzzle. The short version is that they involve cryptic clues of various sorts, presented as verse.) I decided that I needed a nap more than I needed to solve flats, though I did end up glancing through them and solving a few before my (all too short) snooze.
I had been conserving my energy because the Saturday night extravaganza is worth doing so for. This year’s involved the usual wide range of puzzles, built around the concept of National Polytechnic Labs trying to recreate an ancient thinking machine. The puzzles were grouped into three categories (physical science, life science, and social science), with each group leading to a meta puzzle that got you a piece of hardware. I was particularly proud of myself for an "aha" moment that led to solving one of the metapuzzles. I was less proud of myself for grossly overthinking the answer to one of the puzzles along the way. Anyway, the whole thing was amazingly complex and, I think, harder than usual. The winning team took over 3 hours. My team gave up at about 2 a.m.
Not that I went to sleep. I had an early morning flight home, so there was no real point in bothering to go to sleep. Instead, I went and watched the second half of the Texas Jeopardy game that Xemu and G Natural were running. (I’d have liked to play, but was not in the right place at the right time.) It was plenty fun to watch the insanity, which included things like using a slice of Texas toast to time how long somebody had to solve a puzzle. After that was over, I played a couple of group trivia things and then just hung out for a while, before I needed to head to the airport.
In summary, I always come away with a fine appreciation of the efforts of the various people who create games and puzzles for Con. I also came away with particularly severe sleep deprivation. (Fortunately, my travel home went very smoothly, but there was a lot of catching up to do.)
Next year in Maine!