Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Experienced my First Escape Room

As my Christmas gift from my sister, she booked the two of us a session in an escape room today. Escape rooms are a live-action puzzle experience where you get locked in a room and have one hour to solve the series of puzzles provided to try and find the final key which unlocks the exit so you can escape from the puzzle.

Extra Credits has also made a video on escape rooms:

The room that we did was "Secrets in the Attic" from Beat the Lock. The room's story is that your grandmother has died and you have an hour to find your inheritance before the greedy relatives arrive. Beat the Lock also has a "Spy Room" scene which my sister has done before. Since we only made our appointment as the two of us, there was an additional eight participants grouped with us who we didn't meet until we checked in. They turned out to be a very cheerful extended family, so we were able to integrate with the rest of the team relatively quickly and they certainly had a big bearing on the overall experience since these rooms are primarily built around teamwork.

The Good

When we first arrived in the lobby, our moderator greeted us and made a point during the room briefing to make sure we all got to know each other and got a good grasp of the scope of the puzzles we were getting ourselves into.

Once we all understood the rules about being able to ignore the scenery tagged with the "no clues here" stickers and how we as a team can wave at the surveilance cameras at any time to spend one of our hints if we all get stuck, we were lead into the room and "locked" in. I say locked in quotations since they didn't actually lock the door like is traditional but simply closed it and we simply treated it as locked until we found the winning key. I very much appreciate their motivations for moving to this format, and I did find the experience a bit less stressful knowing that we weren't really locked in.

Once we got started, we had one hour to assemble associated clues and solve the presented puzzles to open locks and activate mechanisms which all got us closer to finally finding the victory key. Since this was my first escape room experience, I can't speak to how these puzzles ranked against other escape rooms, but it was pretty clear that Beat the Lock has an in-house puzzle development team and isn't buying an off-the-shelf escape room kit. The puzzles has a good variety of formats, and they were good about not expecting you to bring any outside trivia to the table.

Between the ten of us (my sister, the random extended family of eight, and myself) the puzzles were big and multi-faceted enough that we all got to contribute to the final solution. There wasn't much time during the hour when not everyone was busy working on something.

One thing that I did really appreciate about our moderator was that she did get on the room intercom a few times in excess of us spending our hints to keep us from veering wildly off-course. At one point during the experience we had the dialog:
Me: "Ok, well try the combination XXXX"
Other participant: "Nope, that didn't work..."
[About a minute of us brainstorming and trying other combinations]
Moderator on the intercom: "Someone has said the right combination; try them again"

Turns out we were right on our first combination, but the padlock just hadn't opened. Per the rules, she didn't have to have gotten on the intercom and told us we had already gotten it, but it saved us several minutes of fumbling around on a few of the puzzles during the hour. Which brings us to...

The Bad

On most days these escape rooms are booked for six to eight sessions across the day. That's possibly 80 people a day coming into a very physical experience and having an hour to tear apart the room to find their way out. The room certainly did show some wear and tear; everything was a little broken and a bit ajar.

The room had a slightly cheap feel to it. Many of the props felt like they had been bought from a thrift store or put together from plywood and 2x4s. The padlocks were all very cheap and sloppy combination locks bought from the local hardware store. (Remember how we dialed in the right combination and it didn't open?) There was certainly a level of effort put into the ambiance of the room, but you could still tell that this was an office in an office suite with some wood paneling screwed into the walls. The experience was enjoyable and I had a good time, but it wasn't what I'd call immersive.

I don't know how the $30/person price here ranks with other escape rooms, but I will admit I ultimately found the pine instead of hardwoods and overhead office lighting instead of mood lighting forgivable at this price point for the experience.

I feel like if they brought in a good woodworker to tighten up their boxes and panels, a painter to make their artistic elements a little less "hand-drawn", and an engineer to tie together their interactive elements a little better with some sort of programmable logic controller, it would have taken away my only real disappointment with the room in that it felt a little cobbled together.

Final Thoughts

I carried a lot of anxiety into the room, but between the moderator and everyone else on the team the experience ended up being very low pressure and enjoyable. Compared to what I've read about other escape room experiences online, Beat the Lock is clearly a much more comfortable and laid-back environment to get introduced to the medium than others, and for that I am very grateful. The experience wasn't entirely immersive and had some loose threads around the edges, but coming for the hour of frantic puzzle solving and not the roll playing, I still very much had a good time. I'd say the room's strengths were where it mattered.

I had fun! We solved the room in 55 minutes, albeit needing to cash in all three of our hints. I would do a puzzle room again. I will likely come back and try Beat the Lock's other current room or their future rooms as well.

Disclaimer: This was a Christmas gift from my sister. I have no business relationship with Beat the Lock, but simply enjoyed their service.

UHF Amateur Repeater Test Pair

Repeaters are expensive and time-consuming systems to build and deploy. Because of this, the frequencies that repeaters operate on are actually afforded a special level of protection in title 47 part 97 that normal amateur radio operations are not. When two groups come up on a simplex channel, everyone is obligated to sort it out among themselves as to how to resolve the issue, but when it comes to repeaters, they're allowed to defer to centralized regional coordination bodies to mediate which repeater gets to stay on a frequency and which one has to close up shop and move to a different frequency pair or go off the air.

In California, the relevant organization is NARCC. Any time that you set up a new repeater, you should ideally go to them and follow their policies to get your repeater into a state of "coordinated" so you can fall under their protection from future interference. Unfortunately, when it comes to high density urban areas like the bay area, we are essentially out of free repeater pairs, so unsurprisingly the politics involved in getting a new repeater on the air is eye-watering for "just" a hobby.

While I do work on a few permanent repeater systems coordinated under NARCC, I'm not the formal trustee for any of them, so I have relatively little interaction with the coordination committee. Where I do often end up being the trustee is for temporary repeaters which are deployed for only a matter of days for special events such as the Wildflower Triathlon or the Bay Area Maker Faire. Getting coordination for these events wouldn't work out, since the coordination process is so slow and labor intensive, so I often get challenged by other amateurs for "how dare I set up a repeater without NARCC coordination."

When it comes to UHF repeaters, I actually kind of do technically have NARCC coordination. At least in the 440 band, NARCC was kind enough to set aside one of the repeater pairs to be designated as a "test" pair. This pair is designated as a free-for-all, and presumably meant primarily for use at new repeater sites for evaluating range to assist in getting a new repeater coordinated. I've been having great success using it for these small weekend deployments in much the same way that you would select a simplex frequency for an event and just pray that no one else needs the frequency.

At least in California, the best pair to use for temporary or portable repeaters is:

I didn't know about this pair until last year when I stumbled upon it in a band plan graphic on the NARCC and the Santa Clara County websites.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that there is a likewise allocation on any of the other repeater bands, which is understandable since 2m repeater pairs are in such greater demand than UHF pairs (at least a longer waiting list beyond there being none left?). I know of some groups who will just pick a repeater pair that's not locally used much and try and fly it in under the radar, but if I were to ever need a 2m pair for a temporary deployment, I plan to follow essentially the same protocol I use for utilizing an existing repeater, only for just their frequency pair instead of their actual machine:

  • Identify a repeater within the area where I need communications resources.
  • Reach out to them before the event to seek permission to use their repeater pair.
  • Set up a repeater on their pair with a different PL tone. Possibly have them disable their box for the hours of operation.
  • Thank them profusely after the event
  • Nudge the hosting organization to donate $100-$750 to the repeater trustee for the use of their repeater pair and dealing with us for the weekend.
Many repeater trustees take the coordination process very seriously, and it's a relatively tight-knit community of repeater operators across California, so you will make a bad impression on a lot of people very quickly if you get known for setting up random repeaters on other people's repeater pairs, even if just for a special event.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Mastr III Repeater Teardown Video


I recently purchased a pallet (!) of Mastr III repeaters for some parts. These are really unique radio systems since they're so modular, so I thought you'd enjoy a video where I tear one apart and talk through its basic theory of operation.

I mention the video I've previously done on phase locked loops.

Repeater Builder has a prohibitive amount of information on the Mastr line of radio, including a giant list of datasheets on each module which I really enjoy.