This is part 7 of a 10-part series.
This time, I’ll cover a couple more minor things that I couldn’t find a place to put.
Non-Newtonian Fluid Puzzle
The frosh were sent to Blacker Beach, where the AI informed them that it found 20 acrylic chips containing the next code in the mysterious goo they saw there. The acrylic chips were small circular pieces of acrylic that had a letter and a number laser cut into them (I think it was Brad who did the laser cutting).
The goo was a mix of corn starch and water (by the way, carrying several 50lb bags of corn starch is pretty fun). In case you didn’t know, the result of this mixture is an awesome fluid, called a Non-Newtonian fluid, whose viscosity is dependent on how quickly you try to move through it (technically “shear rate”). You can get up to some pretty crazy shenanigans with it. This property made it ideal for making the frosh search for small objects inside it (it’s especially fun for people who haven’t gotten a chance to play around with this sort of thing).
Since this was obviously a very messy process, we had to do the mixing the night before. We laid down a simple support structure, four 4x4s in a square with some plastic on top, and added a bunch of our two ingredients. Then we began stirring and added more of either substance until the overall compound was well-mixed and the consistency was what we wanted.
It was as much fun to do the mixing as it is to play with it, since the mixing basically just involved playing with it. We also asked some alums to come by during the day and mix it a little bit, since the goo would have settled during the day.
Once the frosh found the code, the AI opened with, “Well shit, I suppose I should have expected it was going to be here. Who would have thought that a collaboration between Vector and the Caltech physics department would have labs in a physics building?” It then instructs them that they must go ahead and complete all the sabotages that happened to them, including kidnapping Kurt, before they move on to the Physics building to complete their final mission.
For the consistency of the timeline, and “so that Kurt will reveal important exposition to past you,” as the AI put it, the frosh needed to go to an early part of the day: before they first found Kurt tied up, but after they gave the flash drive to him in the SAC. Once they found Kurt, they needed to make sure to steal the drive from Kurt as well as tying him up in the back room where they found him. As we said in our announcements, “there is no paradox, only self-consistency.” For this, Kurt needed to be standing around in Karman, acting unsuspecting. One hard part was that only a little bit later (in about half an hour), Kurt needed to be by the physics buildings to help the group do the final puzzle.
Enter enlisting more alum help (in this case, Aria). She had to come in right after the frosh kidnapped him to rescue him, in addition to being the one to first tie him up earlier, but hopefully not be seen by the frosh. We also made sure to warn both Aria and the frosh not to cut off Kurt’s circulation in their earnestness. Aria’s tasks with this fit into a larger master schedule that was in a Google Doc that we had and wound up generating a lot of e-mails and supporting documents sent to alum helpers.
From Kurt’s perspective, this was also potentially quite challenging. At 1:15pm (lab time), Kurt was acting surprised that the group was untying them since they had just tied him up. At about 2:45pm, he was standing around in a hallway and surprised that he was being kidnapped and tied up. At 3:30pm, he was again on their side and had to be helping them destroy the quantum super-computing core. We engineered it this way because we thought the stark contrast would stand out to the frosh and make the experience feel more authentic.
I’m particularly proud of our T-Shirt design. Somewhere in the middle of putting together the stack, we began to think about our T-Shirts and our posters, so we began searching for cool illustrations of wormholes. We found two that we really enjoyed, and couldn’t decide which one we liked better, so we made one the T-Shirt design and one the poster design (with thanks to Darcy for designing the poster).
I actually spent a few hours learning how to use the pen tool in Photoshop so that I could draw that curve. Matt and Jeff watched me draw it and we all made sure that we were getting it just right. The idea was to visually depict the concept of traveling through a wormhole, as well as to depict a vector, since that was our stack’s and fictional company’s name.
We also spent a while trying to come up with the font to use, checking pretty much every font that I had on my system. We wanted something that was a good mix of professional and sci-fi-like. We wound up settling on the Starcraft font, whose name I don’t know: all of the fonts I can find online merely refer to it as the “Starcraft font”. It was a bit hard for us to make the choice, since it sounds very silly to use the Starcraft font, but we decided that it looked very good and most people wouldn’t notice the association.
Most people at Caltech use the on-campus silk-screening house to make their T-Shirts. Having done it once for one of my fake stacks, I decided “never again.” It’s pretty fun, but quite time-consuming and difficult to make look good. Furthermore, the design we picked wasn’t exactly the easiest to print, as you can probably tell if you’ve ever done silk screening before. Fortunately, we found Customink, which I can whole-heartedly recommend. They have designers who will re-draw your design so that it’ll actually work as a silk-screen (which usually involves mixing it down to 2 or 3 colors and making sure there aren’t any very small lines that’ll get ruined in the process). The only downside is that the shirts wind up being fairly pricy unless you get a very large number of them (I think we ordered about 20 and it was about $25 a shirt), but it was totally worth it.
I honestly don’t remember what I originally had in mind for this section when I was naming this post, so I’ll instead share a few vaguely related stories about planning the stack, ahead of the next post. Our original plan for making the group time travel was to have a location (or several) that they could go to that we could designate a “time machine”. Unfortunately, this proved unfeasible for a few reasons. First of all, it would create a lot of extra work. We envisioned something like a room that would be filled by a smoke generator, with strobe lights flashing, and a bunch of clocks on the walls that would suddenly start rotating quickly (or at least something equally sci-fi-like). We wound up settling on making a webpage that fulfilled the clock portion somewhat and putting it up on all the computers in UGCS. Second of all, the idea of making the group walk all the way back to the same or same few locations seemed somewhat tedious and un-fun. Finally, we already felt like we were running short on time with our stack, so we decided that we would just have the tablet “jump” them for certain events without their moving much, and have a “current time” and “lab time” display there. Perhaps it was a little bit less immersive, but definitely more doable!
Speaking of time planning, Matt did a lot of delicate planning for when each puzzle ought to start and end. Matt made the Google Doc with the master schedule I mentioned earlier, and it had all the puzzles and activities timed out to within 15-30 minutes, along with all the things that needed to happen at all of those times and what the “current time” was within the plot at each of those times. Our morning timings actually wound up being pretty spot on, although lunch would have provided a good sync point in case we weren’t. Our afternoon timings were a bit less correct (though fortunately not fatally), but I’ll talk about that in the next post. I’ll also discuss what we did to make sure the timings stayed more or less on, as well as some other planning and day of stories.