Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Plan

Now that the Hunt has ended, I can reveal one of the deepest, darkest secrets that we have kept. A secret that has resulted in the revelation and performance of an act that has deep history and import to the world of the Hunt.

Item 214 read simply "22818877@N06". This cryptic phrase, as many of you realized, is a Flickr account ID. This leads to a trio of pictures of brownies. These tasty morsels are not simply for show - upon the confections are an odd assortment of sprinkles. These colorful bits are actually morse code, instructing people to read the first letters of each of the tags on the images. These read "nalpeht", "googlepages", "com/plan.html". Put them all together and you get the next site in the series.

The page hints at something called "the Plan". Odd, since item 119 is a cryptic one reading "Execute the Plan". The curious observer might wonder if there was more to the web page than what was seen. And that observer would be correct: in the source code for the web site, there is a comment instructing the reader to browse to

At this point, the reader was confronted with an odd graphic showing a plan, but not the Plan. The intent of this diagram was to show that this next step involved not just someone at the computer, but one or more people in a car. The person back at HQ would be given a location-specific question online and send the mini-road trippers out to that place. At that place, they would inform the person at HQ of the answer to the question. Upon receipt of the answer, the HQ person would use it as the name of another Blogspot (that is,, which would lead to another clue at another spot, and so on.

While the diagram wasn't necessarily all that clear, it seems that everyone was able to glean the context from the post below it, giving the first location and question. The locations were as follows:
  1. The first set of coordinates (N 41°43'20.9" W 087°38'1.9") are for a portion of the parking lot of Trinity United Church of Christ; this is Barack Obama's church, located in the 400 block of E 95th Street. A picture was provided of a reserved parking sign, with only part of the words visible (the title Director of Music) - the question asked what the remainder said. Some people were able to find out online that he is Robert E. Wooten, Jr., and guessed the correct answer,
  2. The second set of coordinates (N 41°43'17.2" W 087°39'33.9") was one that was basically not web-accessible. About a mile and a half west of the Trinity UCC is a liquor store named George's Cut-Rate Food and Liquors. The question asked about a particular phrase on a warning sign outside the store. The gut reaction would be to attempt to use Google Streetview to find the phrase, but some strange problem with the Streetview camera meant that the particular block of 95th Street was essentially unviewable. It would have been possible, given a stroke of luck, to come across a Wall Street Journal article that referenced the correct answer:
  3. The third set of coords (N 41°43'35.4" W 087°42'8.1") led the intrepid scavengers to a place called Snacksville Junction at the corner of 91st and Kedzie. This recently reopened restaurant has a substantial gimmick: your food arrives on train cars. Thus, everything is railroad themed, including the menu items. This question asked people to identify the first word of a menu item that ended in "& Ohio". The punny solution was, of course,
  4. The fourth location (N 41°43'48.7" W 087°42'37.8") is just northwest of Snacksville Junction and led people to a particular area in St. Mary's Cemetery. A picture singled out a plot, and asked what the first letters/digits of the words on the headstone spelled. The headstone reads "Brother Edward C. Gaedele 1925 1961", so the answer is
  5. Place number five (N 41°43'10.4" W 087°40'56.7") only led to the general area of the next clue: The Plaza mall at 95th and Western in Evergreen Park. A picture accompanied the clue, showing a sculpture of a man feeding/getting attacked by birds. The question asked what was written behind his right shoe - the answer being the signature of sculptor George Lundeen: There are other sights to see at The Plaza; Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Royale avec Fromage and atrophied-limbed Snoopy are just two of them.
  6. The final location (N 41°43'16.5" W 087°40'9.4") is a fantastic place on 95th Street between Ashland and Damen called Jimmy Jamm Sweet Potato Pies. The clue was to read a particular section of the menu, leading to However, it was also heartily recommended that people get a slice of pie there, because it's mmmmmm good.
So after all this exploring, a tantalizing bit of The Plan is revealed: it involves someone known as The Man. How mysterious! The next step somehow involves a picture of a Beanie Baby named Steg.

Other hints also exist: a reference to the gentleman visited in the cemetery, stating that he once played baseball and that his team's name might be pertinent. Some sleuthing reveals that Edward Gaedele is more frequently referred to as Eddie Gaedel, who was a dwarf whom Bill Veeck played once in a 1951 game as a promotional stunt. His team was the St. Louis Browns. And an additional hint in the source indicates that that is to be written all lowercase. A third hint is hidden from view by being black text on a black background, suggesting that somehow a large ant is relevant.

So a stegosaurus image, the word "browns", and a large ant. How to fit it all together? The major clue is the subject matter of the image itself. Steg is not only a Beanie Baby but shorthand for a nifty spy-type message hiding system called steganography. Simply put, steganography is the art of hiding messages in a way that conceals the very existence of the message. A simple example is invisible ink - when put on a document, there's little clue that the secret message even exists.

Steganography is big in the digital age. Choose any type of file, and there's probably a way to hide information in it. One of the most popular is image files. How can you hide a coded message in a picture? Well, by occasionally altering the information in the file - making a tiny bit of it a little redder, and another part a little darker, all according to the system being used.

But! There are dozens of steganographic tools that don't work with one another - they all use different methods. How to choose the right one? Well, here the insect-related clue comes in handy: there is a steg tool called "maxant" listed on the Wikipedia page, and that is in fact the correct tool to use. (Another idea for a hint was an image of a giant ant and Max Palevsky Residential Commons, but that was rejected due to the possibility of Scavvies getting the Wrong Idea of what The Plan actually was.) One last obstacle remains, though - maxant requires a password for decryption. That's where "browns" comes in handy.

The result of the decryption is the following:
Good work.

Steganography is great and all, but there's something to be said for plain old ciphers, don't you think?

Guvf vfa'g n cnegvphyneyl uneq bar gb penpx. Jnag n qvssvphyg bar? BX, gel gur bar ng uggc://jjrfgvai.tbbtyrcntrf.pbz/ergebsvg.gkg naq frr ubj lbh qb.
Well, there's obviously some code there at the bottom. It's encoded using one of the simplest techniques around, ROT13. Basically, you swap A and N, B and O, C and P, all the way to M and Z. Doing this gets you to a file called retrofit.txt.

Retrofit.txt is up-front about itself, clearly stating it is a Vigenère cipher. (Check out the link for more information if you're interested, as explaining it is kind of complex.) The key phrase for the ciphertext, which is required to decode it, is stated to be a two-word phrase from this year's list. What could it be‽ Well, if you try a certain obvious phrase, you might get a hint: using "scav hunt" as the keyword, the first few letters are HOPEZULVO. This might encourage you to try something like "scav hunt", such as, say, "scav bundt" - the correct keyword.

Decrypting the Vigenère leads you to a Freewebs site with three phrases repeated many times:
But! A closer look will show that there are extra letters in certain lines. These extra letters end up being "z8nB_rACvJk". What the hell is that? Well, another hint gives a clue: white on white text states "think like a shapeshifter from Anacortes". That strange phrase is helpful - when the words shapeshifter and Anacortes are pumped into Google, the second hit is from the Homestar Runner wiki, referring to a specific Strong Bad E-mail. One of the easter eggs for this e-mail involved a similarly nonsensical string of characters, which was discovered to be a YouTube movie identifier (the stuff that goes after "" in a YouTube URL).

So, after all this, the trail ends up at a YouTube movie. The movie is composed of several stills, showing a multistep process:
  1. Acquire coleslaw and a sock
  2. Place coleslaw in the sock
  3. Bunch the coleslaw in the end of the sock, creating a Highly Effective Weapon
  4. Swing the sock
To drive the message home, the description tells you what The Plan boils down to: BOP THE MAN.

Thus, at Judgment, Christian (who along with Kat and myself conceived and worked out this item), during judging of his page, made the following statements:

I am The Man.
Execute The Plan.
I'm The Man.
Execute The Plan.
Bop The Man!
Execute The Plan!!
I'm The Man!!!!!

Now the secret is out. Luckily, The Plan has been executed, and The Man has been bopped.