The Ecphorizer

Hide and Seek
Gareth Penn

Issue #46 (June 1985)

I would  to propose a new kind of treasure hunt. It's not the kind that you may be accustomed to from Asilomar. That kind is more of a challenge to the seeker than to the hider. The kind I am thinking of is just the reverse.

Here are the rules. The hider conceals an object,

U.S.G.S. maps are just crawling with numbers

say a bean bag, somewhere in the continental United States. He must now communicate to the seeker the bean bag's location. There is no geographic limit, there is no time limit; but there are severe limitations on the means used to convey the information. It must be nonverbal, unrecorded, and undocumented. As a further [quoteright]limitation, these rules (and any by-laws that come up along the way) must be unknown to the seeker when the game begins. In fact, the seeker cannot agree to play the game at all. You might  such a game "Grail Castle," since Grail Castles must be unwittingly found.

The restrictions on the means of communication may sound rather formid- able, but they are easily overcome. That, in fact, is the chief reason for not telling the seeker what the rules are. The main burden, the challenge, is on the hider. This is a test of his skill at communication using a difficult means.

The means may be difficult, but the instruments are ridiculously simple. All you need is a telephone and a clock. This exercise would have been next to impossible twenty years ago, before the advent of quartz crystal regulated clocks, but now these highly accurate instruments are abundantly available. I say "highly accurate" because any instrument is considered to be accurate to one-half of the smallest division of which it is capable. In this case, we are talking about minutes. In order to be accurate enough for our purpose,the clock used has to be less than thirty seconds off. Modern household clocks are considerably more accurate than that.

The telephone is used to mark particular clock times. There are, on a clock face, 720 different numbers (60 minutes times 12 hours). There are, of course, large gaps: all the numbers smaller than 100, and all numbers whose last two digits are higher than 59. Even so, there is a large enough stock on hand to be serviceable.

The location of the bean bag is defined in terms of numbers and numbers only. The numbers used have to be expressible as clock times. The hider communicates these numbers to the seeker by calling him at the corresponding clock times and hanging up after one ring. That keeps the transaction both nonverbal and undocumented: the phone company does not record one-ring hangup calls on your bill.

Just as the two players must have a common time to refer to, i.e. two clocks that differ from one another by no more than a few seconds, they must also have a common locational document to consult. The definitive one, for the United States, is the U.S. Geological Survey's series of topographic maps. Each of these maps has a name and a number, and many of those numbers can be expressed as clock times.

Maps don't have to be identified by number, but that is one way it can be done. In this as in the rest, the only limitation on the hider is his imagination, or lack of it. Once the particular map has been identified, how does the hider identify the location of the hidden object?

U.S.G.S. maps are just crawling with numbers. Two types of features bearing numbers are of special interest, because they can be located with a great deal of precision: crossroads and benchmarks. The numbers connected with these features express elevation in feet above mean sea level. In an area whose elevation ranges between 100 and 1259 feet, there are plenty of such features that can be expressed as clock time. That does not mean, of course, that a clever hider could not paraphrase smaller or larger numbers. Once again, the only limitation is the hider's imagination.

But just to make the case as simple as possible, let's suppose that the hider has chosen a U.S.G.S. quadrangle whose identity can be given as clock time, or a combination of clock times. This quadrangle also covers a range of elevations that can be expressed as clock time and so has crossroads and benchmarks with the same advantage. The absolutely most economical means of pinpointing the bean bag is to select two benchmarks that have clock time elevations and then center a clockface on each, twelve o'clock at due north. The azimuth from each of the two clock faces to the bean bag is expressed as the position of the hour hand when it points to the bean bag. Where the two hour hands cross is where the bean bag is to be found.

Given the right choice of quadrangle, the bean bag could be located with no more than five one-ring hangup calls, one to identify the map, one for each of the benchmarks, and two clock time-azimuths. The hider is  advised, so as not to miss his correspondent, to confine calls to weekdays and the wee hours of the morning, so as to maximize the probability of finding the seeker at home. A sixth call might be in order, to communicate a command to execute — for instance, a ring on the phone at 1:50. Clock times can express not only topographic features; they can also be written in binary so as to spell things in Morse code. 150, as I would redivide it, were I a hider, is 1 001 0110, digit UP.

I think it's incredibly ingenious, and I wish I could take credit for having thought of it. It sounds like something that might have proceeded from the mind of Jorge Luis Borges; but as far as I know, he didn't think it up, either.

In the August and September, 1984, issues of THE ECPHORIZER ("The Pond of Kabbalah" and "Sympathetic Magic at Goose Pond"), I pointed out a curious congruence between the longitude of a topographic feature found in Massachusetts, spelled in base-two notation, and its place name, of arbitrary provenance, spelled in Morse code. I didn't hit on that congruence by throwing darts at a map of the United States, and I confess to not spending much of my time analyzing New England place names in Morse code. I was led directly to that spot, where a curious artifact was found by my New England associates, by exactly the method outlined above. I am hopeful that in the near future, this research will prove to be productive of something more than little circular picket fences. Only time will tell. 

This month, GARETH PENN follows up his pursuit of the Zodiac killer with yet another episode. This stuff is having results, folks. Stay tuned for further bulletins.

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