Monday, October 19, 2009

Move over Dan Brown - I have a better puzzle mystery

A couple of days ago I received a small envelope in the mail with unusual handwriting and no return address. Intrigued, I opened it and found the following note cards. Top note card was on the top of stack, left image is the front and right image is the back of each card. Click for larger images.
I think the initial reaction of most normal people would be, "What the hell, what insane serial killer sent me this?!" (okay, maybe not totally normal people). My first thought, on the other hand, was "Mike's Birthday Puzzle." I checked the stamp on the letter, and yep - from the town of his university. Nice try concealing your handwriting, but foiled by the United States Postal Service!

Mike is one of my best friends, and in addition to being hilarious and a brilliant mathematician, he's also a Puzzle Master. I think he's deserving of this title since he's full of trivia (go on Jeopardy already, Mike!), always carrying around puzzle magazines, and has created unique puzzles that have been printed in said magazines multiple times. During our sophomore year of high school, Mike decided (maybe out of boredom) to create a puzzle filled treasure hunt that would lead to my birthday gift. I would have to figure out one clue to find out where the next one was hidden - usually somewhere in one of our classrooms - until it led me to my present. It was so fun, for both him and me, that it started a tradition. Every October since then I start getting puzzles, so by the time November 2nd rolls around, I'll have found my gift.


See, the part that I didn't mention is that Mike is way, way smarter than me. And while his puzzles seem to get better and better, I seem to get stupider and stupider. I generally have to resort to outside help and many hints, and I think he takes special glee in the fact that Mike's Birthday Puzzle is infamous enough to deserve capitalization and a certain amount of fear. But I have the upper hand this year, Mike! I have a blog! So fair readers, I present you with the first clue of many in the puzzle - the note cards - and I will update you with whatever other information I receive.

That being said, I have no idea what those note cards mean. I wouldn't put it past him if the whole thing is a red herring just to make me go mad. So if I have to go mad, you're going down with me.


  1. I wish I had friends like yours. This should be interesting indeed.

  2. Oh my lack-of-god. That sounds so entirely cool. And yet, the cards already have me completely lost, yet battering my brain for answers.

  3. First card makes me think of darts... the whiteboard in my classroom has dots on it from magnetic darts (precision vs. accuracy) that they remind me of, plus the "throw" aspect.

    oh wow, google is awesome. 2523118 is the US patent number for the rearview mirror, and is the first sequence of numbers in card #4. The weird handwriting there makes me think that part of the card should be read as in a mirror.

  4. Oh, God, I’m SO happy not to have a cruel genius friend like Mike. I’m utterly hopeless with these sorts of puzzles.

  5. My first thought was that all his "ts" look like "Xs", so they may be marking some kinda of spot.
    The cards were flipped horizontally or vertically in your photos?

  6. "before the rainfall" and "after the scent"
    Rearrange = Anagrams?

  7. 51564 is the zip code for Pisgah, IA. Backwards, or mirrored, that's "hag sip." You're the Blag Hag. And given that the blue 3-sided thing looks like a cup, I'd guess one of the options for "throwaway" items is a glass.

    As for the anagrams:

    "Before the rainfall" can be rearranged a number of ways, easiest of which is "Before the fall rain." Other combos: "Father of all in beer," "A line be there for fall..." Lots of ways to play with it.

    "After the scent" doesn't have as many options, because there aren't as many vowels. "Raft these cent" makes no sense, for example.

    9192018 comes up on google as having to to with an aluminum heat radiator, and 9151419 brings up a list of Linux errors. 1320 is a year, of course, but nothing sticks out to me as to what event that year might be important.

    These are all possible leads, all probable red herrings. Great if they help, sorry if they don't. Do let us know the answer, hm? :)

  8. Ian: Great idea, but when I looked in a mirror, didn't see anything.

    Random Dude: Cards were flipped horizontally

    I like the anagram idea...

  9. Maybe put a straight-edged mirror horizontally through some of the words? Some of the ways the letters are written seem fishy to me.

    Anagramming "after the scent" gives you "The facts enter" which hits my brain due to reading too many atheist blogs, but I bet there are about a billion other possibilities too.

  10. Can we assume that some of the odds things are just Mikes handwriting? For example the W of "which" looks odd or the way he wrote the M of "mark".

    Anyway, I'm much better with numbers... and I'm basically writing down as I'm thinking, so other maybe get an idea along the way I was missing.

    Writing them down in a fixed font they say:
    25 23 11 85 15 6
    49 19 20 18
    13 20 91 51 41 9

    Which is odd.
    I'm a CS major, something screams at me here, I just can't point to it yet. It's certainly no ASCII Code, but it's also unlikely that it's a simple number <-> letter chiffre, because there are no doubles.
    Next, I counted the occurences:
    Number | Occurences
    0 2
    1 9
    2 4
    3 2
    4 2
    5 3
    6 1
    7 0
    8 2
    9 4

    That looks pretty normal to me. Lots of ones..hmm.
    Anyway, the elephant in the room. these werid green symbols. I had some ideas about them, before I discovered another triangle thing in the lower left corner. Now I'm completely dumbstruck.

    By the way, I just noticed. In the first card, the first W "leans to the right", the last two W are completely the opposite. I guess there is a significance after all. Hrm, playing around with GIMP for half an hour didn't help. Mirrored, deleted and rearranged everything I could think of, no luck.

    Gotta run to class now, I'll try again later.

  11. Is Mike left-handed or right-handed, Jen?

  12. I'm pretty sure he's write handed. I should also state that none of these cards really show his true hand writing - they were all done to conceal his identity or provide clues, I suppose.

  13. Right handed. I just woke up.

  14. Yeah, I figured. I was looking at the one in brown, it looks written right handed, but it appears to be written by someone who is left handed using their right hand.

  15. Thanks a lot Jen. I love these kind of puzzles, and I can't stop thinking about it. You basically occupied my brain for the next few days, thanks.

    The problem is, I don't know how detailed I have to be. For example the big exclamaition mark. The lower part is "dotted", the upper part looks more like interrupted lines. Is it reasonable to assume that there's a meaning behind this? Should I think about any connection to the dottet circle and the writing from the first card?

    I've even thought about the green symbols and what the integal of the difference between them would be at one point, before I realized that I'm proably way, WAY off track.

    Basically what I'm asking is: How sophisticated is he? How detailed and obscure does it generall get? When should I stop following a lead?

  16. Mike has the potential to be fairly sophisticated, but keep in mind he also knows he's making them for me and wants me to actually be able to solve them. So...don't over think them too much.

    Also, Mike knows if he made me do any Calculus I would just punch him in the face.

  17. On the second card it says "rearrange the two," but there's nothing to indicate there's any defined phrases there. I know others have tried running "after the scent" through an anagram program, but perhaps "the two" means two lines, and it's supposed to be "and after the scent" that's rearranged. The A-N-D might be something.

    Unfortunately that comes up with 62501 results.

  18. I'm interested in the phrasing of the third card. Xs mark the spot. Not X Marks the spot. Suggesting plural Xs.

  19. For instance: adding "and" to the phrase allows the creation of the word "facade." But already I'm overthinking it :p

  20. @Veritas Xs may mean "crosses out" or "deletes." The first card references throwing away something.

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  22. I find the absence of any 7s to be odd.

  23. (anagraming 'and after the scent' also allows you to get 'fathead' :p I'll stop now)

  24. Well clouds come before the rainfall... and I'm not sure what comes after the scent. It could be something like that. Something that get's mixed with clouds.

  25. No idea if this 'Mike' has ever seen Death Note, but the first letter of each line in card two doesn't indicate anything special, Just 'bara' (an anagram for Arab).

    Is it possible Mike knows who Theda Bara (Arab Death) was?

    There hasn't been much mention of the back of the cards. The unbroken sideways 'n' has me thinking that maybe it's supposed to correspond to the lines on the front of the card. It would be lines one and four, and then either the first or last letters of two and three. Not sure what they could mean. I'm probably just reaching.

    Another possible idea: take the backs of the cards and arrange them horizontally. It reads

    (blank) n (blank) !

    Which might be one word like...'One!' Or 'Any!' Or 'Inu!'

    I keep turning to pop culture or other obscure references. Is Mike more science and mathematics minded? Or does he use in-jokes and esoteric references that only you and he would know?

  26. Philip,

    Mike tends to use math, pop culture, obscure references, *and* in-jokes in his puzzles. I've had to decode quotes from friends into a number then magically know to look that up as a zip code, the name of the town pointing to the next clue.

    I guess I'll have to pull through on the in-joke part D:

  27. I'm getting an ace . . . no a seven, a seven of hearts!

    Was your card the seven of hearts madam?

  28. Veritas, I noticed Xs instead of X earlier and didn't say anything. I am trying to put it together. Everyone is assuming that is an ! on the back when it could also be a weird i. IU has some significance, I would think.

  29. 51564 is also this:

    If only we knew someone who was a biologist......

  30. @Veritas

    Yeah, I saw that when I was googling the number sequences. But then I realized that I'm not a biologist, and couldn't figure out the relevance, if any.

    As far as the "Xs marks the spot", I think someone else noted how the T's resemble Xs in the prior card. Maybe their placement is relevant... maybe they match up with those green shapes on the 4th card? Gotta go, or I'd check it myself

  31. there are more t's than shapes and they dont match up. Plus of the 4 green shapes only 3 are shapes, triangle, circle and square, the last one is a line.

  32. That's such a sweet idea.

    And yet it just makes me feel stupid. (Everything does these days.)

  33. The fourth card is your classic "substitute the letters for their numerical place in the alphabet" puzzle. Once you figure out which digits go together, it easily reads "2-5-23-1-18-5 15-6 4-9-19-20-18-1-3-20-9-15-14-19", or "Beware of distractions."

  34. Good work, Tyler.

    The marked out letters are e, i, r, t then. But that may of course be a distraction.

  35. Good catch, Tyler. Sometimes I'm so caught up in looking for crazy things that I forget the simple ones.

  36. "Which will you throw away" might mean that one of the four cards is meaningless and should be discarded. As Tyler noted, this could be reinforced by "Beware of distractions", also indicating that one of the cards is meant to throw you off the track.

    The second card tells you to rearrange something, and the green dots on the last one look like the buttons on a playstation controller to me (but in a different order). Actually, one of the playstation buttons is missing (the X, replaced with the short line on the right)... and "Xs mark the spot"... just some ideas that might help. :)

  37. Rainfall & scent might be petrichor - anagram of CIPHER rot/tor/ort
    The pictures may relate to pigpen cipher, letters D and Y. And as shown above, a straight substitution cipher works for the last card. X's are used for part of the pigpen cipher.

  38. Nah, forget my mention of particular letters, maybe it's just the clue that ciphers are/will be involved.