August 22, 2002
9:26 AM   Subscribe

It starts with Delaware... Over at Google Answers, a Microsoft Games Studio employee has posted a most interesting puzzle to solve. Over the course of the last twenty months a list of states has been gradually revealed by his boss, but under what criteria are they listed? He's giving $200.00 to the winner; just think of what you could buy. The fine folks at the Straight Dope are already on the case. To the Googlemobile! [via Cardhouse]
posted by thewittyname (75 comments total)
If it starts with Delaware, "The First State", my best guess is that it has something to do with the order in which states gained their statehood?
posted by jozxyqk at 9:38 AM on August 22, 2002

(should have included this one in the previous comment)
...or the slightly more obscure fact that Delaware has the lowest Highest Point of any state, and perhaps it is in ascending order of this statistic?
posted by jozxyqk at 9:39 AM on August 22, 2002

The sheer number of Googlenauts working on this without success leads me to believe that the answer, when revealed, is going to be very lame indeed, and is not worth the bother. I'd love to be proved wrong, though, as I love a good puzzle.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 9:43 AM on August 22, 2002

Here is some more information lifted straight from the first link:

I asked the creator / discoverer of the puzzle for some hints / clues, and he gave me the following specific hints:
a. The answer is available on the internet
b. The answer may be either 48 or 50 states
c. The answer was published in a publication "with many colorful pictures"

Oh, and jozxyqk: Order of statehood and average elevation have already been eliminated as possibilities.
posted by thewittyname at 9:50 AM on August 22, 2002

jozxyqk: did you happen to get that from a Moxy Fruvous cd? =) the lowest-highest point thing was the first thing that came to my mind too, but I checked, and it doesn't pan out. Plus, it appears (from that list, anyway) that florida has a lower high-point than delaware (so were they wrong on the fruvous cd?)
posted by GeekAnimator at 9:52 AM on August 22, 2002

I thought of elevation quickly, too, but Florida would be first. It's very interesting that the first few are small colonial states and then it jumps to Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas -- and only two Western states so far. Names and populations of capitals (or largest cities) also pretty quickly prove out. The length of the puzzle (theoretically lasting up to 4 years) tends to discount any recent, variable statistic.

The 48/50 thing is also interesting. It could mean a dated statistic -- prior to the admission of AK and HI -- or merely a continental-US statistic. My guess based on the geographic distribution is that it's actually a historical factoid of some sort -- but if it isn't ratification of one of the long-moribund amendments like congressional pay, I dunno what it is.
posted by dhartung at 10:15 AM on August 22, 2002


Thewittyname, I hope you're happy. I absolutely cannot work until I make some headway on this. I'm fired for sure now.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:20 AM on August 22, 2002

I think it's chicken population.
posted by panopticon at 10:31 AM on August 22, 2002

Many colorful pictures? Perhaps an encyclopedia, that had a color pane of all the flags of the state?
posted by ebarker at 10:31 AM on August 22, 2002

I think that the toll suggestion made on the comments page is a good one - perhaps the states with the most tollbooths?
posted by MeetMegan at 10:40 AM on August 22, 2002

Probably soemthing like ratification of some law, or order for voting in primaries or somthing like that.

Or maybe the RGB color combinations of their flags.
posted by rich at 10:40 AM on August 22, 2002

My thought was it was stats from some issue of WIRED. (lots of colorful pictures)

Anyone have a 19 month old copy of WIRED hanging around?
posted by quibx at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2002

Well, I found this... I'm thinking it *probably* isn't this, since Conneticut isn't even on their list of customers.

Delaware was the first lottery to use AWI's Win-Instant Terminals (WIT's) in a pass-through environment to non-AWI computers to validate instant tickets.
posted by dgt at 10:44 AM on August 22, 2002

perhaps the states with the most tollbooths?

Good thought, but I know that at the very least, Minnesota (#18) has no tollbooths.

We also have no tax on clothing.

We rock.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:49 AM on August 22, 2002

Connecticut has no tollbooths.
posted by smackfu at 10:57 AM on August 22, 2002

I'm a google researcher, and I agonized over this one and finally gave up.

The colorful publication in general is thought to be USA Today by the other researchers for some reason. I figured it could very well be an Atlas.

The answer is going to be so lame. Possibly sports related, as this guy's boss is a big sports fan
posted by AaRdVarK at 10:57 AM on August 22, 2002

Now this is decentralized computing. Screw SETI@home, let's start up googleanswers@home and start contributing spare brain cycles.
posted by jragon at 10:59 AM on August 22, 2002

Incidentally, here's the list so far:

1. Delaware
2. Connecticut
3. Massachusetts
4. Rhode Island
5. New Jersey
6. Illinois
7. Wisconsin
8. Texas
9. Arkansas
10. Louisiana
11. Indiana
12. Ohio
13. Iowa
14. Arizona
15. Alabama
16. Mississippi
17. Florida
18. Minnesota
19. West Virginia
20. Maryland
posted by pardonyou? at 11:17 AM on August 22, 2002

Something to think about, all states have Abbreviations, searching on the Abbreviation rather than full names may help. I couldn't find anything, but I haven't seen it mentioned.
posted by Blake at 11:20 AM on August 22, 2002

God, this is going to drive me nuts.

Here's something to ponder. There's a certain grouping methodology at work. First is DE, then a group of CT,MA, and RI (they're next to each other). Then another "skip state", NJ. Then IL and WI, which are neighbors. Then TX, AK, and LA. The next two, IN, and OH, are neighbors. Then two skip states, IA and AZ. AL, MS, and FL are neighbors. MN is a skip state. When I saw WV, I guessed the next one would be either KY, VA, or MD. Sure enough, state 20 was revealed as MD. My money is on VA for 21, but I still can't figure out what the bigger pattern is.
posted by mkultra at 11:21 AM on August 22, 2002

magazine with colorful pictures? I call dibs on order of playboy playmates published!
posted by dogwelder at 11:26 AM on August 22, 2002

When fully revealed we'll find out the order listed is the #1 Link on Google for many search terms including "All 50 States" and "State Names for Games" amongst others.

So in the future, if someone asks - "What's the most common yet random ordered listing of state names" the answer will be . . .

posted by dhacker at 11:39 AM on August 22, 2002

Hmmm....sports..... Largest number of little leaguers ? Least number of hula hoops sold? Oldest baseball parks? Greatest amount of money spent on kayaking equipment? Longest biking trails? Highest recorded kite flying?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:48 AM on August 22, 2002

If it's a magazine with lots of colorful photographs, and we're dealing with states, it's probably National Geographic.
posted by Hildago at 11:51 AM on August 22, 2002

[pedant]Arkansas=AR; Alaska=AK[/pedant]

As one who was raised in Arkansas, I can tell you that this is a very common mistake.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 11:53 AM on August 22, 2002

Do you know what Arkansas? The same thing Tennesee! hahahahahahha
posted by corpse at 11:59 AM on August 22, 2002

State birds, ordered alphabetically, by their Latin names?

Ratio of coal production to number of public school students?

Percentage of EMT's certified as Level 2 Trauma Care Specialists?

Percentage of residents who participate in fantasy baseball leagues?

Doesn't this seem a little random to qualify as a puzzle?
posted by dglynn at 12:10 PM on August 22, 2002

I'm tired of researching this so I'll share what I've found so far:

I think it's GSP(Gross State Product) per capita from a April 2000 Governing Magazine study.

In this article it says that Delaware ranked 1st, New Jersey ranked 5th, and Maryland ranked 20th.

This would fall around the same time the puzzle started. I can't find the study though, I've searched Governing's archives and scoured Google for a few hours. Good luck.
posted by joeadk at 12:48 PM on August 22, 2002

Anyone have a 19 month old copy of WIRED hanging around?

oddly enough, i've got almost every issue since april '96 or so. something compelled me to keep them when i started my subscription
posted by fore at 12:50 PM on August 22, 2002

joe: That seems promising, but if that is what the list is supposed to be, it's quite a bit different from this list published by the US department of commerce which puts Alaska and New York quite a bit higher, among other differences.
posted by squant at 1:34 PM on August 22, 2002

Sorry, joeadk, Alabama's GSP per capita is/was around 44th, not 15th.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:35 PM on August 22, 2002

Well, since it deosn't matter if it's 48 states or 50, why not search for a similar GSP per capita before they were states?
posted by rich at 1:49 PM on August 22, 2002

uh... 'they' being Hawaii and Alaska, of course.
posted by rich at 1:49 PM on August 22, 2002

With the exception of Alaska, the states near the top of the google list and the states near the top of the DOC list roughly match up. Maybe Governing used some other criteria in their study, and maybe they exclude Alaska and Hawaii in their studies. Maybe the Delaware news source misreported and the ranking took other factors besides GSP into account.

It is a magazine that would likely have colorful pictures and such. Don't think I'll be strolling to the library after work and sorting through the microfiche archives though.
posted by joeadk at 1:52 PM on August 22, 2002

I think dhacker has hit the nail on the head (British expression).

I have also been told that the solution to this puzzle is on the web somewhere

He just wandered into my office and commended me for trying to use google to find the solution.

The answer is Google. When this is all wrapped up and finished, as dhacker says, Google will come up with this list every time someone searches for keywords like puzzle, states, list etc.

OK, I'll admit this doesn't explain some of the other clues without some stretching - such as being published in a place of many colourful pictures and the 48/50 thing.....
posted by saintsguy at 2:23 PM on August 22, 2002

Looking at a map and jumping state-to-state in the order provided by the list, I cannot explain why, but it seems natural (after jumping my finger around (Texas - Arkansas - Louisiana ...)) that the next state in the list would be Virginia (West Virginia - Maryland - ... ).

Geographic grouping of some states leads me to believe this has something to do with geography. Also, the fact that the guy, who knows the solution, presents each state with a sticker of that state's flag on a large canvas makes me wonder if this game has something to do with state flags.
posted by quam at 2:26 PM on August 22, 2002

I wonder if this is the order in which the state websites went up. Very Tolkien, that would fit with "the answer is 'on the web somewhere'". I can't seem to find that information anywhere though.
posted by Caviar at 3:10 PM on August 22, 2002

Caviar -- that was my impression as well, after going to Delaware's site and seeing a "First on the internet" sign. no verification yet
posted by LuxFX at 5:11 PM on August 22, 2002

I'm also a GA researcher, so let me tell you what I've tried already:

It is not any US Census Ranking.
It is not the name of the state bird, flower, date of bird, flower, or flag in auguration.
It is not on the USA Today website.

If anyone here solves it, send me an email and I'll PayPal you $150 and then I'll answer it. I will make $0 in the process.
posted by aznblader at 5:35 PM on August 22, 2002


The answer was published in a publication "with many colorful pictures"

Perhaps a stamp album would provide a clue (USPS).

The only other (obvious) idea I had was U-Haul trucks. But, surely someone's thought of that.
posted by SPrintF at 6:21 PM on August 22, 2002

It's also not the GSP... from the census and BEA values.
posted by aznblader at 6:38 PM on August 22, 2002

c. The answer was published in a publication "with many colorful pictures

I'm disappointed in you guys--think art, or children's books/reference materials. I think children's books/reference.

I'm almost sure it's the adoption/ratification of something (an amendment to the constitution like women's suffrage, or something big and national that would be taught to children--civil rights act of 1964?) You have to share the $$ w/me if that's it tho....
posted by amberglow at 7:09 PM on August 22, 2002

first thing I thought was National Geographic..
I looked, but didn't find anything -- maybe you'll have better luck?
posted by j at 7:31 PM on August 22, 2002

interesting kid's fact page on
for clues
posted by amberglow at 7:39 PM on August 22, 2002

I'n like a dog with a bone now--thanks all of you! (not)

my last guess for tonight: order of adoption of Martin Luther King day as state holiday?
posted by amberglow at 7:49 PM on August 22, 2002

the order in which each state got/gets the new quarter?
posted by ggggarret at 8:52 PM on August 22, 2002

posted by ggggarret at 8:55 PM on August 22, 2002

Amberglow, I'm on the same track. I've been looking at song and rhyme lyrics for kids. I never knew there were so many songs written about the States.

I thought I had something when I ran across a song by Perry Coma called "Delaware" but alas, that was not it.

posted by ChaosKitty at 9:06 PM on August 22, 2002

Errr...that would be Perry COMO, of course.

I blame it on the fact that my brain is short-circuiting as a result of this damned question.
posted by ChaosKitty at 9:09 PM on August 22, 2002

I don't think it's that far off as to be a kid's song. I find the latest clarification interesting. The asker mentions that the originator of the puzzle said "one or two ideas in the comments is on the right track." Maybe that might help.
posted by aznblader at 9:23 PM on August 22, 2002

If it's in a kid's book, it's a lot of other places as well, and it's a lot more obvious.

The order of the state quarters is the order of constitutional ratification.

Given that it's a 48/50 state list, it can't be something that isn't in every state (e.g. public universities, pro sports teams) or only uses state names (ship names, street names). It's got to be something intrinsic to any and all states. Almost all of the hypotheses based on historical order or geographic properties break down because of the jump from the seaboard to the Midwest, then Arizona and Texas -- yet still not one western seaboard state. Purely randomly, there's a 10% chance each time that one of AK, HI, CA, WA, OR would be chosen -- and after 20 iterations, a BOTE guess of 80/90% against none of them being chosen so far. That has to mean something.
posted by dhartung at 11:42 PM on August 22, 2002

It occurs to me that there is something fundamentally wrong here.

I work at Microsoft, and this puzzle has been floating around our office for several months. Every month, the head of our group adds $100 to the prize pool and reveals another state. Guessing a solution costs $1. By this point, the total prize pool has risen to over $2000.

The guy that set the puzzle has promised to pay out $100 per month to the person that gets it right. What nobody seems to realise is that he is guaranteed to make a pay out.

When it gets to week 47, there will be only one option left for week 48....unless it is going to be a list of 50, in which case the same is true at week 49.

It just doesn't seem logical for someone to set up a puzzle where he cannot win (where noone solves it and he gets to laugh at their foolishness).

I think the solution is both simpler and yet much more devious than people think.
posted by saintsguy at 1:09 AM on August 23, 2002

This is quite seemingly a joke being played on the Google Answers crew (and the rest of us). And/or it's so obscure that , of course! Only one person knows about it.

The rest of the world in this case is probably the consumables at the next Microsoft Picnic at which an award will be given out.
posted by crasspastor at 3:09 AM on August 23, 2002

maybe it's a cross-promotion bet. microsoft and google? and we're all suckers for falling for it?

I'm still betting it's in Britannica for Kids or something like that and will be a elementary school answer--if it's for real....

Chaos: maybe it's an animaniacs song?--i know they did state capitals, etc...
posted by amberglow at 5:22 AM on August 23, 2002

I'm sure (in a based-on-nothing, psychic-sort of way) that NY and CA will be either at the end or very near the end...can't say why...
posted by amberglow at 5:44 AM on August 23, 2002

I like the idea that it might not be searchable text, such as a map with street names in a particular order, or an image in itself. I'm currently looking at jig-saw puzzles with collages of state flags on them (it's what I would pick out, just for it's sheer irony)
posted by samsara at 5:59 AM on August 23, 2002

My best guess is that the order in which each state got a chapter of MADD or United Way.

A friend in the office was wondering about something tied to weather, since some weather maps don't show Hawaii and Alaska (hence the 48/50 thing).
posted by szg8 at 6:47 AM on August 23, 2002

I'm sure (in a based-on-nothing, psychic-sort of way) that NY and CA will be either at the end or very near the end...can't say why...

Maybe, but this is an interesting point. Who's not on the list yet? Two "Big Gun" states. Nothing on the West Coast. Arizona is the only Western state on there at all.
posted by mkultra at 7:21 AM on August 23, 2002

Amberglow, I checked on the Animaniacs song last night. (Wackko's song)
The states aren't in the right order.
I am convinced this is something kids would know. Maybe an old song or rhyme to learn the states?

I agree, it's probably something so simple that we are all going to smacking ourselves in the foreheads when the answer is revealed.
posted by ChaosKitty at 8:23 AM on August 23, 2002

... or it's something unique to Microsoft or the question asker that we could never know.
posted by quirked at 8:34 AM on August 23, 2002

This may be something like the little virus of a puzzle that floated around a couple of years ago about "What happens on the 33rd of May, only on a leap year?" The forums at the Straight Dope got rubbed raw trying to solve that one. I believe that today's modern consensus is that it was just a sort of urban legend that there is an answer -- it was someone's joke about an impossible puzzle.

The interesting question about this one is, even if it is groundless and the states are randomly ordered, what are the chances that there is some plausible connection to a randomly-ordered list of the states?
posted by argybarg at 10:22 AM on August 23, 2002

dhartung: One theory I had was that of a band tour. Bands on tour will be driven by the availability of large venues in a certain area, so they may hop from region to region because of that. Since the smaller venues are not as tightly scheduled as the larger, the bands will then play several smaller venues in the area since they're there already. That could explain the geographical clustering. The Arizona thing stretches it a bit, but, hey, maybe the lead guitar wanted to play in the Tucson Open or something.

saintsguy: As I understand it, the list alone is not enough to win the prize. An explanation of the ordering is also required. If the person who posed the original puzzle works for a large corporation, he may be paying the prize money out of some fund earmarked for morale, entertainment, etc. and he doesn't care about losing the money
posted by joaquim at 10:35 AM on August 23, 2002

There's a list of everything that's been discounted so far on the answers page.

Chaos, keep trying...I think we're on the right track...
: >

What if it's an old-time mnemonic device for memorizing the state names that the guy learned in school 40 years ago? Like: "Donna Can't Meet Rhoda .....(but i'm hoping that's not it...)
posted by amberglow at 2:57 PM on August 23, 2002

mkultra, run with could prove that it's a reverse list (of something cultural? of air traffic? movie screens per state? miles of interstate highways? ....) now to connect that with the kid angle....hmmmm.....
posted by amberglow at 3:05 PM on August 23, 2002

Does the 48/50 thing mean it applies to 48 states? Because one thing that sprang to mind is that 48 states have some form of legal gambling. The two that don't (Hawaii and Utah) haven't been listed yet. Also it could have been something worthy of a photo-shoot in a magazine, different types of gambling. Anyway maybe that's not what the 48/50 means anyway.
posted by cell divide at 3:11 PM on August 23, 2002

try it, cell...was Delaware the first or last to make gambling legal?

I think it's unclear on the 48/50 thing...maybe it applies to both 48 of the states and all 50?
posted by amberglow at 3:40 PM on August 23, 2002

It starts with Delaware. It ends when you decide and we both drink -- and find out who is right, and who is dead.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 4:09 PM on August 23, 2002

Delaware was the first state to have high-speed internet access to each public school and each public school classroom. Seeing as the question originated from a tech-y guy, could this be a start?
posted by cell divide at 4:14 PM on August 23, 2002

from what i know, cell, Delaware is the ONLY state where that's true....NY (not on the list yet) definitely doesn't have it, and neither does NJ (already on the list)...

but maybe it's the amount of school-age children per state, with Delaware as the least? That would tie into the Microsoft Games thing...

This is going to bother me all weekend....(but it is fun!)
posted by amberglow at 4:32 PM on August 23, 2002

HUGE hint guys. The puzzle creator says it's NOT a ranking, but an order in which something happened. Chronological, I'm assuming.
posted by aznblader at 5:33 PM on August 23, 2002

joaquim: Good point, I had overlooked that.

A quick visit to has given me an idea. It says that Delaware was the first state to go online. Is there an equivalent to whois for US Government pages? Is there any way to find out the order in which these sites were registered?
posted by saintsguy at 10:07 AM on August 24, 2002

Oh wait....I see what I've done there......
posted by saintsguy at 10:17 AM on August 24, 2002

we're listed on the google page now....
posted by amberglow at 11:15 AM on August 24, 2002

Heh. Not only are we on the google page but every time I run a search of any combination of the first few states on the list, this page at Metafilter is in the top 2 or 3 results.

Did you know that there are people who have set out to golf, scuba-dive, collect Hwy signs from, visit every capitol, and even eat Big Macs in each of the 50 states? Of course, none of them have done it in the order we are looking for.


The search continues...
posted by ChaosKitty at 11:33 AM on August 24, 2002

Watch this space: over @ Google Answers, they may have a winner...
posted by dash_slot- at 9:02 AM on September 17, 2002

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