May 10, 2004


Posted by Matt

The past few days the University of Chicago has had its annual Scavhunt competition. It's a large scavenger hunt, involving finding or building odd items, or competing in various other ways. I enjoyed this year's less than I have those of previous years, and to some extent I fault the list, though there are certainly factors not directly related to the hunt that made a difference. Still, the list had a lot of good things. Congratulations to the Snell-Hitchcock team for taking first. I was working with the second place team.

One of the items I worked on was a Tesla coil. We attempted to build a large one, and were fortunate to know someone with a secondary coil already wrapped (one of the most time-consuming parts). Unfortunately, our high-frequency choke kept coming detached from its wire, which wasted a great deal of time, and we could find no suitable capacitor. Preliminary tests of part of the circuit indicated things weren't working quite right, and building a Leyden jar would have been dangerous, so after long hours and much debate, we finally gave up and settled on attempting witty showmanship with a small Tesla coil used in some of the undergraduate teaching labs here. The item called for us to power a vibrator, a lava lamp, and a theremin with the coil. The coil we had, as one of my teammates observed, already vibrated well enough. Christmas tree lights might resemble miniature lava lamps if you squint. But best of all, one of my teammates was able to play Jingle Bells with the sound of the sparks between the small coil and the impressive-looking secondary from our attempt at a large coil. This was really excellent; it even sounded mostly in tune, although the highest note had to be pretty flat. The pitch changes based on the distance the spark has to jump. This isn't so far from how in a theremin the pitch changes when you move your hands, right? I think it went over fairly well, though I don't know what fraction of the points we got. Probably not as many as last year when we convinced them we did the Rutherford scattering experiment with a digital camera, an americium source from a smoke detector, and a bottle of Goldschlaeger. On the other hand, this time several of us are left with an unhealthy desire to build a large Tesla coil in our spare time, despite having practically no electronics experience.

At the moment I think I've been awake about 39 hours. I ate and slept little over the course of the hunt. As Subash has observed, long periods of sleeplessness have interesting psychological effects. In my case I think it mostly enhanced frustration arising both from the difficulties with the items and from other sources, so I spent too much of this hunt pacing and thinking about problems without moving toward a solution. It seems to almost be the reverse of what Subash described. I feel like the lack of eating anything resembling a normal meal for a few consecutive days had more adverse affects than the relatively mild ones of not sleeping for one night. Anyhow, at this point I'm finally starting to feel like I might be able to sleep, so I'll leave this post with the urge that you look over the Scavhunt lists online from past years if you're curious. A lot of creativity went into creating the lists, as well as into solving them, and the judges (who produce the list) each year should be applauded for their work.

On another note, this year's hunt had one overly weird item, in which someone ate his own umbilical cord that had been saved since he was born. That was way too bizarre.

Now I really have to sleep before I stop making any sense at all.

Posted by Matt at May 10, 2004 12:03 AM

Yeah, that umbilical cord thing was pretty gross.

Congratulations to you guys. Hope the sleep helped. I know that the 11.5 hours of sleep I got last night made me much happier, though I think I need one more night like that to get caught up.

Posted by: kathleen at May 10, 2004 11:24 AM

Thanks for the congratulations, not that I contributed much. Of course, the real congratulations go to Snell-Hitchcock. I had a feeling they would beat us, and their point total was very impressive.

Sleep did help some, though I still have too many things to worry about hanging over my head. Hope you get caught up soon.

Posted by: Matt at May 10, 2004 12:34 PM

Someone actually did the umbilical cord thing? Horrors.

Kathleen, did that girl y'all left in Jersey ever return?

Also, did anyone do the "draw your favorite judge in bacteria"? That was my favorite item.

Posted by: susan at May 10, 2004 02:26 PM

Yes, Jillian Rochat and a first-year named Lauren whose last name I don't know were able to do the judge in bacteria. They only had time to get three colors, and I didn't see the finished product, but I think it turned out pretty well.

Posted by: Matt at May 10, 2004 02:56 PM

OK, so fuck Dan Clinton. He called the road trip team and told them to do that. A girl on our team actually filed a missing persons report in Trenton because the girl supposedly left was her best friend. At least no one called her parents.

This is the first year I've had both a favorite judge and a least favorite judge.

Posted by: kathleen at May 10, 2004 06:04 PM

Just since my original comment seems unclear, DC did not tell the Road Trip team to actually leave her in NJ, but rather to tell us that they'd left her in NJ. She was in the car the whole time.

Posted by: kathleen at May 10, 2004 06:05 PM

Hi, Matt!
Constantly pondering improvements as I am, I'd like to know: what specifically did you find weak about this year's list? You're the only person I've spoken to who didn't think it was better than last year, and of course, I'm too biased to comment.

Oh, and because I had to get one for Scavhunt, I now have a blog. Now taking the crown from public access TV as "home of the bizarre rant"! No sense in keeping its ultra-secrecy anymore, now that the Hunt is over.

Posted by: christian at May 12, 2004 05:23 PM

I didn't think it was possible for Christian's status as my hero to be enhanced. Wow.

FWIW (pertaining to the Glorious Blog of Christian), I am told by reliable sources (Beth) you are making Noam Chomsky very happy by uttering sentences that no one has ever said before. I think you might be making him especially happy by uttering them rather than writing them. I had been calling such sentences "Chomsky sentences" for years, but it appears that I am wrong. Anyway.

Posted by: susan at May 12, 2004 11:17 PM

Hi Christian,

In retrospect, I'm not sure I have too many complaints about the list. I was mostly not enjoying Scavhunt at all between late Friday night and late Saturday night, but that was due to events only tangentially associated with Scavhunt. (Which are now mostly resolved.)

As for the hunt itself, after looking back over the list, I think it was pretty good. A lot of people I've talked to seem to agree that there were more big projects this year. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view. Big projects that are pulled off are awesome. Ones like the Tesla coil are incredibly difficult to pull off in the timespan of Scavhunt; just collecting the necessary parts took a couple of days, and there was no time for troubleshooting when we found that one component was literally falling apart.

So, big projects can lead to a lot of frustration. A team that wants to win has no choice but to try to do all of them, and this leads to a lot of people devoting huge amounts of time to one thing. I think such items are a great part of Scavhunt, and some people love to do them. But this year there seemed to be too many for those people to do, and people like me got drafted into them.

Personally, my favorite items are those that fall somewhere in the middle in terms of time commitment (and, generally, points). One of my favorites this year was the "Fantastic Four in Queer Eye for Dr. Doom" item. As someone who read the Fantastic Four for much of my childhood, and collected tons of the back issues, the item had a lot of appeal for me. It didn't turn out as well as I would have liked; the more artistically talented person who was going to put together the final copy wasn't able to do so. But doing the item was just a lot of fun. A few people brainstormed ideas together, I tried to add a number of comic references that someone who knows the series well would get, and then I sat down with our designated artist and tried to plan it all out (and, at her advice, incorporated Patrick Swayze for good measure). From there it was another hour or two of work to put together my draft, which we ended up turning in, but a few more hours would have been ideal.

(There was also a snafu where other Palevsky people did a comic and the information never propagated to us; I'm not sure if the judges saw both or only one. I've heard a rumor that some judge has my comic; if by any chance you know if that's true, I'd like to get at least a photocopy of it back.)

Such items are what I like most about Scavhunt. In terms of points they're not spectacular, but they really are substantial items. It's a serious amount of effort to do them well, but to really excel a team has to get all these 40 point items. They're the sort of thing that you can get someone who isn't one of the really hardcore Scavhunt people involved with; they can produce something impressive, and make a real contribution to the team. These items can really draw on the talents or knowledge of particular team members.

So, I guess what I'm getting at is this: it's important in a Scavhunt list to have a good balance, of small items, medium-size items, and large projects. The things in the middle are what I like best, but that varies from person to person. This year, I felt like the emphasis was tilted slightly too much toward the large items, but how much of that is due to the list and how much to the attitude of Palevsky team members, I'm not sure.

Still, after reviewing the list and trying to think objectively about this year's Scavhunt in relation to past ones, I think it was a good list. There were definitely things I liked last year (the Crying of Lot 49 references were fun, even if some of the items didn't work out so well, and there were more items involving physics or math that appealed to me). And last year the really great thing about being on the Palevsky team was seeing how we managed to get so many of the small and medium point items done so well. This year I felt like little attention was being given to many of the things that were under 100 points. This may have been more of a Palevsky issue than one with the list, but the sheer number of very large and difficult items did make us feel like we had to divert more people to them.

Well, there's my rambling commentary. Take what you can from it; with my view of the hunt so focused on a handful of items, though, I don't have enough of a global picture to feel like my opinion deserves to be taken too seriously.

I'll be watching your blog.


Posted by: Matt at May 13, 2004 12:12 AM

And one more thing: whoever came up with the idea of using that Junior Senior song as a theme is either brilliant or twisted. I couldn't get it out of my head the whole Scavhunt, and it keeps creeping back. Damn it. Can't stop the beat.

Posted by: Matt at May 13, 2004 12:17 AM

That was MK, and the answer is both. That song has carved out a permanent place somewhere in the back of my brain, and it is now a reflex to "move my feet" whenever I actually hear it played.
Thanks for the comments--believe it or not there was actually a time when people were worried that there weren't going to be enough large construction items. I honestly don't know what they were smoking.

Posted by: christian at May 13, 2004 11:39 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?