A Secret Code Lurking in the Library Stacks!

[Image courtesy of Wonderopolis.]

The best thing about secret codes is that they can hide in plain sight. In the past, we’ve referenced all sorts of ciphers and codes that were employed to pass secret messages across open channels.

But, as it turns out, clandestine communication isn’t the only end to which secret codes can be applied.

Recently, I stumbled upon a series of Tweets that detailed a mystery at a library involving a secret code.

[Image courtesy of Princeton.edu.]

Take it away, Georgia:

So there was a MYSTERY at the library today.

A wee old women came in and said “I’ve a question. Why does page 7 in all the books I take out have the 7 underlined in pen? It seems odd.”

“What?” I say, thinking she might be a bit off her rocker. She showed me, and they did.

I asked if she was doing it, she said she wasn’t and showed me the new book she was getting out that she hadn’t even had yet. It also had the 7 underlined! “I don’t know, maybe someone really likes page 7?” I said, assuming of course that there is a serial killer in the library.

I checked some other books. Most didn’t have it, but a lot in this genre did – they’re “wee old women” books (romances set in wartime Britain etc). Lots of underlined 7s. The woman who pointed it out shrugged and went on her way, “just thought you should know”.

[Image courtesy of MovieSteve.com.]

What could it mean? Was there a secret message spelled out somehow across the seventh page of all these books? Perhaps the seventh word? What could the message be? A warning? A threat? A great universal truth? A clue to a hidden treasure? The start of a symbol-laden journey across European with sinister forces hot on your heels?

Well, no. Calm down.

As it turns out, there wasn’t a secret message or a hunt across Europe or a threat from a diabolical library-obsessed serial killer on the loose. There was simply an elderly client with her own unique code.

Apparently, she was underlining page 7 in every book she read, in order to keep track of which books she’d already read, in case she comes across it on the shelf again.

And she’s far from the only one! Upon further research, the librarian uncovered a number of different tracking systems, many of them pre-dating the use of computers to keep library records!

Whether there’s a little star on the last page, or an F on the title page, or a page 7 underlined, each code reveals a different, dedicated reader with their own system.

When she posted this story on Twitter, other library employees and former employees piped up to share their own encounters with secret library codes that patrons employed!

I think it’s fascinating that systems like this seem to have been around as long as libraries, probably discovered (and re-discovered) periodically as different patrons and librarians alike notice them.

Better living through secret codes. Who knew?


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New Clues for an Unsolved Treasure Hunt!

[Image courtesy of Westword.]

Who doesn’t love a treasure hunt? The chance to pit your wits, your skills, and your luck against the elements, a dodgy old map, and the curious clues left behind by an eccentric mind… who could resist?

We’ve detailed a few famous unsolved treasure hunts in the blog in the past, and by far the most popular one that remains is the brainchild of Forrest Fenn.

Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, there is said to be a treasure chest containing millions of dollars worth of treasure.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

How does one find this treasure? By deciphering the nine clues in Fenn’s poem, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.

Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.

From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is drawing ever nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.

If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.

So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak

So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.

Hidden since 2010, the poem has baffled and beguiled thousands of aspiring treasure hunters, and several accidental deaths have been attributed to the treasure hunt.

In order to prevent such accidents in the future, Fenn has released a few additional clues to keep hunters safe:

“The treasure chest is not under water, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice,” he writes. “Please remember that I was about 80 when I made two trips from my vehicle to where I hid the treasure.”

Whether these hints will help aspiring hunters, it’s hard to say. For now, that treasure is still out there somewhere…


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: NCIS: New Orleans

Last week, a murder investigation turned into a puzzly treasure hunt for a group of NCIS investigators, a team who investigates criminal cases involving members of the military. So join us as we rundown the events of “Treasure Hunt,” episode 17 of season 4 of NCIS: New Orleans.

The episode opens during a pirate-themed festival, as two women search for the secret entrance to an exclusive costume party. Unfortunately, instead of drunken revelry, they stumble upon a dead body, strung up inside a warehouse on the waterfront.

The NCIS team soon arrives, and the coroner identifies the victim as an oceanographer, Lt. Commander Elaine Dodd. Dodd was beaten before her death, and her arm was partially skinned, perhaps as part of an interrogation.

Dodd’s oceanographic work centered around Grande Isle, the former stomping grounds of the infamous pirate Jean LaFitte. The team makes contact with Dodd’s father, Tom, a former Green Beret. He expected her to show up at his house in Florida after an excited phone call, but she never arrived. This leads the team to believe that Dodd’s death had something to do with a treasure hunt, one of the things she and her father bonded over.

Forensic analysis reveals that her arm was skinned to remove a tattoo, but they’re able to reconstruct the image: a simple compass and some coordinates. These confirm the treasure hunt theory: Dodd had apparently made some progress in locating the lost Napoleon Fleur de Lis, a jewel-encrusted emblem stolen by Jean LaFitte and hidden away.

Following the coordinates to a church, Special Agent Pride and lab tech Sebastian search the area, finding their way upstairs to a lofted storage area. But someone has beaten them to the punch, opening fire and sending the agents scurrying for cover.

Pride chases the two suspects, but they get away, and when he doubles back to the loft, he finds Sebastian examining a statue stored in the church attic. Once the statue is removed from its pedestal, a secret compartment opens, revealing a wooden puzzle book wrapped in cloth.

The puzzle book is marked with a fleur de lis and bears an inscription of Jean LaFitte’s signature. The investigation of Dodd’s murder has officially become a treasure hunt.

Back at the field office, Agent Gregorio would prefer to use a knife to crack open the book, but Sebastian insists on solving the cipher to open the book, as some puzzle books include a vial of acid inside that would destroy the book if tampered with.

While he works on the puzzle book, cameras outside the church help the agents ID one of the suspects, a mercenary for hire. Dodd’s father Tom enters the office, hoping for progress, and recognizes the suspect. He points the agents toward the mercenary’s usual employer, a specialist in deep-sea diving and sunken galleons. Dodd’s father offers to arrange a meeting, and the team is wary, but takes him up on his offer.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and Gregorio check Dodd’s phone records and find several calls to a local professor, Michelle Faucheux, an expert in LaFitte and pirate history, who they believe helped Elaine find the coordinates. But when they arrive at her home, it has been ransacked, the professor locked in a closet. After they release her and calm her down, she confirms she’d been talking to Elaine.

Tom makes good on his word and lures his contact to a bar with the agents in tow. But the man, Walton, claims he hasn’t worked with either of the suspects in months. He warns Tom and the team away from the treasure hunt, clearly spooked by the ruthlessness he’s observed.

Sebastian and Gregorio bring Michelle back to the office, and she’s stoked to see the puzzle book. The cover of the puzzle book is encrypted, and they have to turn a dial in order to unlock it. But they need a key word to help solve the cipher. After trying out various words, they focus on LaFitte’s brother, Pierre — the most likely person to be hunting for LaFitte’s treasure. This leads them to try the word “Cabildo,” the jail in which Pierre had been incarcerated.

Using that as the key word — and a Vigenere cipher to crack the code — leads them to the answer “fleur de lis”, and they unlock the puzzle book’s cover. The iris in the center opens, revealing a latch, and they open the puzzle book.

On the left page is a clock puzzle, and on the right is a map with smaller code dials beneath it, along with a plate reading BLF6.

Agent Pride calls them, informing Gregorio that the two suspects are camped out right down the street from the office. He and the team are en route, but they expect trouble soon.

Oddly enough, the suspects simply hang back and wait as the team reunites. The agents suspect the mercenaries are waiting for the team to lead them to the fleur. So the team focuses on the riddle, hoping for a chance to gather more info on whomever is bankrolling the gun-toting baddies.

The riddle “Move as the clock” offers a hint for how to find which code letters to enter, but they’re not sure where to start. Pride theorizes that BLF6 could point toward Barthelemy Lafon, an architect and city planner from the 1700s who also palled around with the LaFitte brothers. He is buried in a local cemetery, in a crypt located at F6 on the map.

Gregorio, Sebastian, and Michelle head to the crypt while Agents Percy and LaSalle keep their eyes on the suspects, getting close enough to clone their phones and gain access to their calls and text messages. Pride and Dodd’s father are back at the field office, trying to figure out who would literally kill to have the artifact.

The puzzle book trio spot an engraved fleur de lis over the letter L in “Lafon”. They try “moving as the clock” by moving clockwise to the next crypt. Another fleur de lis over another crypt engraving gives them the final letter they need, unlocking a compartment in the book and revealing both the suspected acid vial and a piece of paper. It’s a partial map with another riddle written in French. Michelle quickly translates it as “enter this last crypt to find the fleur de lis” and runs off.

At this point, all of the viewers become very suspicious of Michelle. I mean, come on, the riddle was four lines long, and given how tough the puzzle book had been to crack thus far, this seemed too easy.

Meanwhile, the suspects leave after receiving a text that the fleur is NOT in the cemetery. As you might have suspected, Michelle texted the suspects and has been behind everything the whole time. But the viewers are clearly one-up on the agents, who blindly follow Michelle to another crypt, where Michelle traps them inside and runs off.

We get some unnecessary backstory on Michelle involving a dead brother and being scammed out of treasure by the Spanish government, but who cares, what about the treasure hunt?

Pride and Tom go after Michelle while Percy and LaSalle hunts for the easily bamboozled agents, who are trapped in the crypt and running out of air. Pride and Tom head out to Fort Macomb, a repurposed, then abandoned, base which was formerly known as Chef Menteur. (It’s unclear whether they solved the map clue that Sebastian photographed and sent them before being trapped or if they just followed the hired goons.)

But nonetheless, they’re en route to the treasure while Gregorio and Sebastian set a fire inside the crypt, hoping the smoke will escape and lead their fellow agents to them before they suffocate. Their plan works, and they’re rescued.

At Fort Macomb, Pride orders Tom to stay with the car, and heads into the fort, getting the drop on Michelle. Unfortunately, her goons capture Tom, and Pride loses the standoff. In classic villain fashion, Michelle has Pride dig up the treasure for her.

At her moment of triumph, Tom puts his Green Beret training to work, taking out one of the hired thugs as Pride dispatches the other. Since we’re running on full cliche at this point, Tom has a chance to kill the woman who killed his daughter, but spares her after a speech from Pride. The better man and all that.

The episode closes with the team admiring the bejeweled source of everyone’s consternation. Tom decides to donate the fleur to the city, because that’s what his daughter would have done. Nice closer.

All in all, I was a little underwhelmed by the episode, because the plotline twists failed to keep up the same interest level that the treasure hunt did. Once they were done with the puzzle book, the cliches rapidly took over.

Who stops in the middle of a treasure hunt to tattoo a clue on themselves? Why wasn’t the tattoo artist a suspect? That would have been a nice touch. Also, Michelle’s transparent villainy wasn’t nearly as fun as her geeky schoolgirl excitement at cracking puzzles alongside Sebastian. That was easily the show’s highlight.

I do want to give a special shout-out to the Codex Silenda team, who created the specially weathered-looking puzzle book for the episode. I wrote about them back in August of 2016 when their wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign originally closed. They’ve been busy fulfilling orders for Kickstarter backers ever since, and they were clearly excited to see one of their puzzle books on a national stage like this.

What’s more amazing is that the puzzle book cracked by the NCIS team in this episode was only a few pages deep. The full Codex Silenda is much larger and more intricate! No doubt the real Jean LaFitte would’ve splashed out for the complete Codex in order to bamboozle potential treasure hunters.

Still, it’s always nice to see crime shows explore the possibilities that puzzles offer. Splicing up the occasional murder with a puzzle (or better yet, a treasure hunt) is a pleasant change of pace for the procedural genre. Nicely done, NCIS: NO.


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A Real-Life Treasure Hunt Awaits You…

[Image courtesy of Go.ActiveCalendar.com.]

Who can resist participating in a real-life treasure hunt?

I certainly can’t. I’ve organized them in role-playing games and as part of birthday celebrations, creating maps, riddles, and puzzles in order to challenge friends to locate hidden loot in both imaginary and real locations over the years.

From The Goonies and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to National Treasure and the Indiana Jones series, treasure hunts are a part of our collective cultural imagination. People hunt in their attics for forgotten antiques and prowl flea markets and thrift shops for unexpected bounties.

So is it any wonder that a few intrepid souls out there are still pursuing treasures hidden over three decades ago as a publicity stunt?

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

In 1981, when author Byron Preiss launched a puzzly scavenger hunt to promote the release of his new fantasy book The Secret, he had no idea he’d just fired the starting pistol on one of the greatest unsolved puzzles in history.

Twelve plexiglas boxes were hidden around North America, each protecting a ceramic container that, in turn, held a key to a safe deposit box containing an actual gemstone.

The book contains twelve paintings and twelve poems. Solvers were expected to figure out which poems to pair with which images, and then decipher them in order to reveal the locations of the keys.

Preiss believed that all twelve boxes would be found relatively quickly.

Only two have been recovered in the thirty-plus years since then, one in Chicago’s Grant Park and the other in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens.

[Image courtesy of Vice.]

This image is believed by some treasure hunters to point to one of the boxes being hidden in Milwaukee’s Lake Park, but thus far, no box has been recovered there.

There are entire forums online dedicated to parsing the various poems and images in The Secret, plumbing them for hidden clues and vetting theories from fellow treasure hunters.

Unfortunately, the cleverness of Mr. Preiss isn’t the only opponent for these hunters. Time itself is against them.

It’s safe to assume that the missing ten boxes are also buried in public parks and other spaces open to the public. But parks get renovated. Landscapes change. Hell, some parks are repurposed and paved over!

So how many of those prizes are no longer within easy reach of a shovel’s blade, even if you do unravel the mysterious clues available? How many were tossed aside as curious garbage by disinterested work crews during renovations?

As The Secret and the treasure hunt it inspired fade into history, so too do the chances of anyone recovering those keys and claiming those gemstones for themselves.

[My thanks to friend of the blog Darcy Bearman for reminding me of this marvelous puzzly mystery, as well as Josh Gates and his Travel Channel show Expedition Unknown for reminding her.]


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Kubrick’s Game Continues!

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Back in September of last year, I reviewed the novel Kubrick’s Game by Derek Taylor Kent, a puzzly adventure/thriller that incorporated elements of Da Vinci Code-style mysteries, film history, conspiracy theories, and a cracking whodunit.

I also announced that a tie-in game was created for readers and puzzlers to tackle. Known as The Game or Kubrick’s Game, this months-long puzzle hunt started quite innocuously, with a poem introducing solvers to the game, and then the following text:

From Ai to the shiNing, from Two thousAnd and one to dr. Strangelove, from sparTacus to lolIta, from Clockwork oRange to pAths of glory, no director in history has given the Cinema more Enigmatic masterpieces than Director stanley kubrick. Over his Turbulent Career, kubrick produced an Oeuvre that gained him the nickname of the Maestro. So what if this Legendary Artist hid a priceless treasure away Somewhere and left clues to the location within his movies, Hidden away in plain sight? KUBRICKS GAME asks this very question and the answer will blow you away.

Once you’ve found the hidden message, it leads you to an encrypted message that directs you to complete a task that will lead you further into the game.

Each puzzle you solve, as well as each additional side task, riddle, and challenge you complete, is worth points (plus bonuses for being among the first to crack each puzzle). A leaderboard tracks the individuals or teams with the top scores as the game progresses.

puzzle4

The players are currently tackling Puzzle #4, and unlike earlier puzzles, instead of getting bonus points for solving the puzzle faster, points will be determined by how few hints the competitors need in order to crack the puzzle.

Only four players have cracked the puzzle thus far, and impressively, several managed to do so without any clues.

I reached out to several of the players for their insights into the puzzle hunt. For one of the players, Rey, this is a particularly intriguing challenge:

This is my first experience doing it as a contest, which really puts the pressure on and actually makes it more satisfying when I solve one of the puzzles. I started off by getting interested in Escape Room attractions and found that it really piqued my interest trying to figure out how all the little clues connect.

So far the last puzzle (#4) has been the most challenging. Definitely took me the longest to figure out. They have all had their own little bits of difficulty that make them different. The Game Masters really know their stuff and are making this a very interesting contest.

fantasticrace

[Game Master Bob Glouberman instructs a batch of competitors
in the Fantastic Race. Image courtesy of The LA Times.]

And speaking of the Game Masters, I had the opportunity to chat with mastermind Bob Glouberman about creating the hunt featured in the book.

I have been obsessed with Kubrick since I first saw The Shining in 1980 when it was released. The idea of a Da Vinci Code with Kubrick’s films at its center was enticing to me. Derek wanted to know if I could invent an elaborate puzzle that went through all of Kubrick’s films and I was so eager to jump in, I said, “no sweat.” Of course it was lots of sweat….but fun sweat.

As for how he actually constructed the puzzles for the novel, well…

I watched all of Kubrick’s films (I had seen them all before multiple times) over again. I bought a white board and I started noticing all of the similarities and tie ins that exist between the films. I then wrote in different colored dry erase marker depending on the film, the connection, and the possibility for a puzzle. I connected all the tie ins with lines which was very reminiscent of Dexter Morgan’s blood spatter strings.

I then watched all the movies a second time and added all of the strange symbols in all of Kubrick’s movies that I didn’t quite understand. I figured those symbols would be ripe for clues. Perhaps if they had meaning for the film, they might also have a subsequent meaning for a puzzle.

I then watched them a third time and added all the scenes that didn’t make sense. Random scribbles on a wall. Scenes that faded out for no apparent reason. Lines of dialogue that appeared clunky. Characters that seemed to go nowhere. These seemingly random elements might have been added for coherence to a puzzle.

And the end result, I believe, is a very satisfying series of puzzles that works well with the films. Naturally, Kubrick didn’t intentionally create a series of puzzles… but he might have. And they may have looked like the puzzle system Derek outlined in Kubrick’s Game.

hqdefault4

There’s still time to get in on the hunt for Kubrick’s ultimate prize! Organizers are keeping registration open until March 1st!

You can click here for all the details on the Game and to get started. For more info on author Derek Taylor Kent, click here.

And be sure to check out Bob Glouberman’s other diabolical projects: a treasure hunt company called Fantastic Race and an escape-room company called Get the F Out.

Happy hunting, everyone!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Melancholy Mastermind edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today’s update is all about the Great Urban Race.

I had the privilege of providing puzzly tech support for my sister as she ran several Great Urban Race events, and it was both a terrific challenge and a marvelously fun experience.

Each race was totally different, designed around the host city, and the questions could involve anything from trivia and cryptography to anagrams and pattern-matching, along with some serious chops when it comes to Googling in a hurry.

[A glimpse at a sample set of challenges from a previous event.]

So I was sad to find out that this year’s competition, which wrapped up with the championship round in Vancouver back in August, will be the last GUR event.

From their website: “After eight fun and action-packed years, Great Urban Race will no longer be touring the country.”

[A team crosses the finish line at a GUR event.]

I reached out to friend of the blog and GUR Senior Manager Jordan Diehl, who had this to share:

The decision to retire Great Urban Race was not an easy one, but ultimately the best move for our company.  We are excited to continue to produce unique and exciting events like Warrior Dash, American Beer Classic, and Firefly Music Festival and will be focusing our efforts on these ventures and others that we will be launching in the future.  

On behalf of GUR and Red Frog Events, we wholeheartedly appreciate the support of our participants over the past eight years and hope to see them at a future Red Frog event! 

While I’m disappointed that the puzzlerific Great Urban Race that we know and love is no more, I’m excited to see what else the creative minds at Red Frog Events come up with. I’ll be sure to update you if anything particularly puzzly arises in the future.

Until then, I wish all the best to the GUR crew, and heartfelt congratulations to all the masterminds who traveled the country accepting the Great Urban Race challenge.

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