Is our children learning? Geeks make sure they is

Smartphones were essential for scavenger-hunters hitting San Francisco's streets as part of a "Tech Search Party" to benefit a local school's technology program.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--The "gospel according to Goldberg." Turns out it can't be found in a local synagogue, Jewish deli, or Rube Goldberg device, though a couple of us puzzling through treasure hunt clues Saturday night were stubbornly stuck on those ideas.

If you're thinking more along the lines of churches and singing nuns, we want you on our team next year.

Tech Search Party clue
A card in the window of Noe Valley store Just for Fun, which sells tsotchkes including President Obama religious candles, indicates that sleuths have found the right answer to clue No. 6: "Home of St. Barack." Rafe Needleman/CNET

The Goldberg gospel was just one hint in the Tech Search Party, a semi-geeky scavenger hunt set in San Francisco's Noe Valley and organized to benefit the neighborhood's Alvarado Elementary School, which needs a technology boost. One-third of the classrooms there don't have working computers; many that do work are held together with duct tape, according to Tim Smith, the event's creator.

About 250 people descended on the normally quiet little Noe with flashlights (or flashlight apps) to solve as many clues as possible in two hours and score prizes like Geeknet gift certificates, Electronic Arts games, a date with Kara Swisher of AllThingsD (PR teams only), and, of course, bragging rights.

Smartphones were essential to the endeavor, as Web searches were needed to decipher clues like "cost $45,499 in year of Beverly Cleary's birth" (answer: the San Francisco Library in Noe, which was built in 1916), or 1:3.226 (answer: the grade of the steepest street in San Francisco: 22nd between Church Street and Vicksburg).

My team, the "Noe-it-Alls" (a runner-up for best team name, I might brag), joined 50 other teams with names like "Several Sassy Sleuths," "Is Our Children Learning?" and "Indominable Immersion Mamas" (Alvarado offers language immersion programs).

On hand were family and friends of Alvarado students; random geeks who learned of the event via Twitter or were recruited from lines for the Google and Apple commuter buses that swing through Noe Valley to take employees to work; candidates for San Francisco supervisor; and even Tyler Hinman, winner of the 2009 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The "Scribble Monkeys" team included CNET's Rafe Needleman of Webware fame and former CNET.com Editor in Chief Steve Fox.

My team consisted of Tom and Rayna, parents of Alvarado students and owners of a Palm Treo and Motorola Q, respectively; Jonathan, who brought along his semi-functional Motorola Razr from 1913; and me, with my little ol' Samsung Alias 2. Needless to say, Rayna and Tom did the Web searching.

Jonathan and I contributed a few brain cells, though we did get sidetracked on that "gospel according to Goldberg" thing. Fortunately, Rayna was able to think outside the Holey Bagel box and recall that "Sister Act" with Whoopi Goldberg had been filmed at Noe Valley's St. Paul's Church.

A respectable finish (we think)
Once participants managed to identify a mystery location, we were asked to snap a photo and e-mail it back to the organizers, who downed Liberty Ales at a warm bar and followed the sleuths' progress as we traversed the cold, hard concrete on foot, searching for the Spin City laundromat (clue: Fox then Sheen). Finding a clue card yielded more hints, and clues could be solved in any order. That cut down on bottlenecks and made it harder for my team to go with our original plan to follow the tattooed twenty-somethings in Google-wear and watch for photo flashes.

In the end, Alvarado Elementary did well for itself, raising more than $10,000 for PCs and flat-panel monitors, Smith said. The Noe-it-Alls didn't fare too badly, either. While we didn't Noe it all, we did Noe 7 out of 10 answers, just two less than the winning teams but not enough to score tickets to see Bon Jovi in San Jose. Next time around, we plan to attach GPS tracking devices to the backs of this year's victors and follow them in a limo.

Several Sassy Sleuths
Alliteration-advancing Alvarado teachers made up the Tech Search Party team "Several Sassy Sleuths." Sponsors of the event included Google, Geeknet, and Salesforce. Rafe Needleman/CNET