An Excluded Solver Strikes Back!

Many people find crossword puzzles daunting.

For some, it’s the crosswordese, those obscure or curious words that you only encounter in crossword grids. Whether it’s European rivers or needlecases, these entries never make casual conversational appearances.

For others, it’s the pop culture that often feels dusty and out-of-touch. It’s not like many silent movie stars are household names these days.

Thankfully, many current outlets and constructors have moved away from this stodgy approach to grid construction and cluing, working hard to keep cultural references fresh and up-to-date, and striving for fluid grid-filling entries that remain both accessible and interesting.

Unfortunately, the reputation of crosswords as behind-the-times is still prevalent in many circles, including among younger solvers.

But I was amused to find one younger solver who sought to balance the scales a bit by taking matters into her own hands.

Tumblr user Greater-than-the-Sword created and shared her own crossword. (Well, technically a criss-cross to puzzle aficionados like ourselves, but the average person would call this a crossword.)

In her own words:

Tired of your parents always doing better than you at crossword puzzles just because they’re old and get the ancient pop culture references? I made this Millennial’s Crossword Puzzle™. Guaranteed to make your parents feel old and less smug.

Sample clues included “is either white and gold or blue and black” for DRESS (referencing the optical illusion that took over the Internet for a day or two) and “Popular Youtuber” for PEWDIEPIE.

Although the puzzle didn’t make me feel old or less smug, it did make me laugh, since I found several of the entries completely baffling and impenetrable. It also reminded me of how amazingly fast cultural references emerge and vanish in the age of the Internet. I got about half of the reference in the puzzle, many of which applied to memes and pop culture from the last few years.

(Though I must confess that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the clue “bendy cabbage patch” meant BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.)

I was unable to reach Greater-than-the-Sword to ask her what sort of feedback she received on the puzzle — either from millennials or from older solvers who accepted the challenge — but I found it to be a delightful response to lazy crossword construction.

You’re welcome to try your luck against the puzzle here.


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Do you accept the Cryptiq challenge?

Normally, this would be a Follow-Up Friday post. But since Follow-Up Friday is all about continuing or expanding upon previous topics we’ve covered, and I suspect today’s post will be something we’ll return to in the future, it gets the nod this week.

I’ve written about puzzle contests plenty of times in the past, whether they’re single crosswords to solve or elaborate multi-step puzzle suites to unravel. Constructors are constantly innovating, and we’ve reached a point where you can tackle amazing puzzly challenges without even leaving your favorite chair.

So if you’re looking for a diabolical new puzzle series you can sink your teeth into from the comfort of your own home, Cryptiq fits the bill nicely.

Cryptiq is a collection of puzzles — available both on their website and in book form — designed to test your puzzly mettle. There are dozens of logic, deduction, and visual puzzles involved, and the designers have clearly set a very high bar for solvers.

From the Cryptiq website:

To win the game you must solve all the puzzles on the given pages on http://www.cryptiq.com or in the book Cryptiq. Once you solve the puzzles you will be left with a code that has 6 values. Be the first to enter these 6 values, in the correct order, on the code input page and you will be moved forward to the verification step. The game can only be won through skill.

After you have entered the correct code, you will be prompted to supply a written solution showing that your solve of the puzzles was not by chance. Once your solve is verified as skill, you will be declared the winner and receive the prize.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a puzzle contest that requires written explanation of the solve in order to prove your skills, but when you consider that the winning purse is $5,000 — and there’s a chance that prize could increase — the team at Cryptiq wants to be sure that someone EARNS that prize, rather than getting lucky.

[Kind of Cunning, one of Cryptiq’s many mind-bending obstacles.]

Best of all? There is no purchase necessary to enter or to win the game. Everything you need to play is right there online. (The book version costs $20, but has all the same information as the website.)

So, fellow friends and PuzzleNationers, will you accept the Cryptiq challenge? Let me know if you do! I’d love to hear about it!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Gotham

[Image courtesy of Comic Book Movie.]

Fox’s comic book crime drama Gotham returns from its winter break on Monday, January 16th, kickstarting the second half of its third season. For the uninitiated, Gotham is set before the days of Batman’s adventures; Bruce Wayne is a young man, James Gordon is a detective, the city is rife with corruption, and most of Batman’s rogue’s gallery of enemies have yet to appear in the city.

Given that the show features one of the most infamous puzzly villains in history — The Riddler, aka Edward Nygma — I thought I would look back on the episode where the show’s version of the villain truly took shape.

So, in today’s blog post, we look back on season two’s “Mad Grey Dawn,” the episode that took the character beyond occasional riddles and into true Batman-style puzzly evil. (It’s worth noting that Edward Nygma’s day job is forensic scientist working for the Gotham City Police Department.)

We open in an art gallery, where a sculpture shaped like a bomb — that, curiously enough, is labeled “this is a real bomb” — rests in the center of the room. Nygma lights the fuse, chasing everyone out, then steals a painting, leaving behind a green question mark spray-painted in its place.

Detective Jim Gordon and his partner, detective Harvey Bullock, are assigned to the case. Before they go investigate, Gordon is held back by his captain, Nathaniel Barnes, who tells him an anonymous tip implicates him in a closed murder case, and Internal Affairs will be investigating.

At the art museum, they learn about the stolen painting, Mad Grey Dawn, which details a railway explosion. They discover two other, more valuable paintings were vandalized with spray-painted question marks, one by Gerard Marché and another by Henri Larue. Gordon believes the thief is trying to send a message, not trying to strike it rich.

And we have our first question: what’s the message?

[Image courtesy of EW.]

The viewer isn’t given much time to ponder it before Gordon realizes the artists ARE the clue. Marché is French for “market” and Larue is French for “the road.” They deduce that the thief is targeting the railway station on Market Street.

We then see Nygma removing a bomb in a bag from his car.

At the train station, Nygma is waiting. But Bullock and Gordon arrive as an order goes out to evacuate the building. Gordon spots a question mark spray-painted on a locker, and as soon as he does, Nygma remotely activates the timer on the bomb.

Gordon uses a crowbar to pry open the locker and get ahold of the bomb. Bullock and the other officers clear out the station and Gordon tosses the bomb before it explodes.

[Image courtesy of TV Line.]

As they investigate the bombing, they find no clues or riddles waiting for them. But Nygma is there, and he has an officer named Pinkney sign an evidence form for him. He then talks to Gordon, feeling him out on what Gordon knows about the bomber, and Gordon makes him the lead on forensics for the case.

Gordon is at a loss as to who the thief/bomber is or what he wants. But the viewer is presented with a different puzzle. We know who the bomber is, and we know he wants to destroy Jim Gordon. But how? How do these pieces we’ve seen fit together?

If you’re an attentive viewer, you’ve already spotted two big clues to Nygma’s trap.

Later, Nygma visits Officer Pinkney at home. He then asks him what you call a tavern of blackbirds, before hitting him with a crowbar.

Gordon looks over evidence photos when Bullock calls with info. They find a payphone the bomber used to trigger the bomb. Gordon heads off to check it out, discovering Pinkney’s murdered body in the apartment next door.

As he checks on the fallen officer, Captain Barnes walks in. Barnes reveals that Pinkney sent him a message, wanting to talk about Gordon. Gordon tries to explain that he was following up on a lead in the bomber case and stumbled upon Pinkney’s body, but Barnes takes him into custody.

[Image courtesy of Villains Wiki.]

Down at the station, Gordon talks to Barnes. Barnes reveals a crowbar was found with Gordon’s fingerprints. Gordon realizes it’s the crowbar from the train station. (Clue #1 from earlier.) He mentions the forensics report and Bullock’s call, but Barnes found nothing about that in the report when he checked it.

Barnes then reveals that Pinkney was the anonymous tip that reopened the murder case mentioned earlier, and he has a signed form to prove it. Amidst all these accusations, we see flashbacks of Nygma taking the crowbar, Nygma securing Pinkney’s signature at the bank (Clue #2 from earlier), and Nygma swapping out forensic reports in Bullock’s file.

Gordon has been thoroughly trapped in The Riddler’s web, and Barnes takes him in. Gordon is charged with the murder and sent to prison.

[Image courtesy of Comic Vine.]

Now, there aren’t the usual riddles to solve like you might expect (though there are plenty of riddles in earlier episodes). For puzzle fans, this episode is more about trying to unravel Nygma’s plan to stop Gordon while it unfolds. Did you manage it?

And the clues are all there, with the camera lingering on the crowbar in the bucket at the train station, and the scene of Pinkney signing the form for Nygma. It’s both a well-orchestrated frame-up and a well-constructed how-dun-it for the viewer.

And with an episode looming entitled “How the Riddler Got His Name,” I expect we’ll see more strong moments from this puzzly villain in the future.


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The Puzzle of the Bard

William Shakespeare is a name we all know well. We’ve studied his works in school, used words and phrases he coined or popularized, and we’ve seen numerous films, TV shows, and other adaptations inspired by his writing.

But for more than two centuries, there has been a great deal of debate over whether the man known as William Shakespeare actually wrote all of the brilliant works for which he is acclaimed.

There are whole societies dedicated to either rooting out the truth or proffering their candidate for who really wrote the works of Shakespeare. Many names are bandied about, including a who’s who of luminaries at the time, like Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Anne Hathaway, Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps most ardently, Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.

[Image courtesy of The Truth About Shakespeare.]

Now, granted, there’s plenty to suggest Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on some of his works, but we’re not talking about collaboration here. We’re talking about ghostwriting some of the most famous works in human history.

But, you may be asking, other than a shared love of wordplay, what does the Shakespearean authorship question have to do with puzzles?

I’m glad you asked.

Over the years, several theorists have reported finding secret codes or ciphers in the text of Shakespeare’s works which hinted toward the true author.

Samuel Morse, a man who knows one or two things about codes, discussed how Sir Francis Bacon had created such codes, probably as part of his spy work, perhaps even going so far as to create an encrypted signature of sorts that appears in multiple Shakespeare works.

According to a BBC America article on the subject:

One scholar at the time went so far as to produce an enormous “cipher wheel” composed of a 1000-foot piece of cloth that contained the texts of Shakespeare and others for easy comparison and decryption. He claimed that by deciphering codes, he’d discovered the location of a box, buried under the Wye River, that contained documents that would prove Sir Francis’s authorship. But a dredging of the area came up with nothing.

[Orville Ward Owen’s cipher wheel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Now, there’s little doubt that Bacon was a code master, but there’s equally little evidence that he wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, if there are codes in those works, perhaps Shakespeare placed them there himself.

According to a theory by scholar Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, Shakespeare’s careful and curious word choices were intended to foment subversive political messages and advance his own agenda of strong Catholic beliefs.

Constancy in love was Shakespeare’s way of alluding to the importance of a true faith in the ‘old religion’, she says. More specifically, his puns and metaphors often circled around certain key phrases. For instance, to be ‘sunburned’ or ‘tanned’, as are his heroines Viola, Imogen and Portia, was to be close to God and so understood as a true Catholic.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.com.]

It’s amazing that we know so little about someone so influential. And it’s only natural that we try to fill in the blanks with our own theorists, be they explanations of Shakespeare’s impressive knowledge or possibilities of alternative authorship.

The man himself is a puzzle, and that is irresistible to some, myself included. Are Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the bard one and the same?

As it turns out, that question might finally have an answer, thanks to the sleuthing of Dr. Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The story begins with Shakespeare’s father:

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree.

His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms.

He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

[Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Blog.]

And it’s this application for a family coat of arms that provides the connective tissue between the man and the bard. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death,” according to Wolfe.

But whether there are codes lurking in the Bard’s works or not, the mystery of the man himself might be the greatest puzzle of all.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Gems from 2016 edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to revisit the post listing our favorite crosswords and clues from 2016!

[Image courtesy of blog.dictionary.com.]

At the end of the post, I asked readers and fellow puzzlers what their favorites from 2016 were, and several top constructors and puzzle personalities reached out to share the puzzles that caught their eye!

The Crosswords Club editor and friend of the blog Patti Varol shared four crosswords she really enjoyed last year: one from The LA Times, one from The Crosswords Club, and two from Andrew Ries’ Aries Xwords puzzles.

Both The LA Times Daily puzzle and the 21x Crosswords Club puzzle were created by constructor Ed Sessa, and Patti considered them two of “the cutest crosswords I’ve solved in a very long time.”

[Image courtesy of Dunkin Donuts.]

The Crosswords Club puzzle, “Made to Order,” had different donuts as themed entries, complete with the all the O’s circled, so that there were actually a dozen donuts in the grid. It was a clever visual gag executed with style.

I enjoyed that one, but I preferred the LA Times puzzle from October 6th, which offered four clues in all caps: OREO, ORE, OR, and O. Those were your themed entries, and the revealer explaining the all-caps entries? ME EAT COOKIE. That was great.

[Image courtesy of District of Calamity.]

The other two puzzles were a double-header from March 12th. “Can You Read Me?” was constructed by Andrew Ries and “Copy That” by Jared S. Erwin.

“Can You Read Me?” was a solid puzzle with a three-part quotation (I CAN’T WRITE FIVE WORDS BUT THAT I CHANGE SEVEN) and the speaker (DOROTHY PARKER) as the featured entries.

But the fun really began when you solved “Copy That,” which featured the same quote, but cited TIMOTHY PARKER as the speaker. And there were seven words in total changed from “Can You Read Me?”

This one-two punch of puzzling is a savagely clever reference to the crossword plagiarism scandal we covered in detail in the blog. Very well played, Andrew and Jared.

[Image courtesy of Jake Silverstein’s Twitter.]

We’ve got one last puzzle to highlight, recommended by constructor and friend of the blog David Steinberg. It was the absolutely monstrous puzzle pictured above, a 50×50 puzzle by Frank Longo that appeared in the special Puzzle Mania section in The New York Times.

I haven’t had the pleasure of tackling this one yet, but David said, “I’ve never solved such a big puzzle before, and it was amazingly smooth and entertaining!”

And with that, we wrap up our look at 2016 and look forward to all the puzzly creativity and inventiveness coming in 2017!


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Fix These Sixes!

[Image courtesy of Daily Brain Teaser.]

It’s a new year, and I’ve already got a new math puzzle for you. A friend discovered this one and sent it my way in the hopes that I’d be able to crack this diabolical brain teaser.

Fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, this is the Sixes puzzle.

0 0 0 = 6

1 1 1 = 6

2 2 2 = 6

3 3 3 = 6

4 4 4 = 6

5 5 5 = 6

6 6 6 = 6

7 7 7 = 6

8 8 8 = 6

9 9 9 = 6

The goal is to make all of the above equations true by adding mathematical symbols.

And, naturally, there are rules.

  • You can use as many mathematical symbols as you want for each equation
  • You are not allowed to use letters, so spelling out functions like “cos” is out
  • You are not allowed to add digits of any kind, so no turning a “2” into a “12”
  • The result has to be exactly 6 ( not 6.0000000000000001 or 5.999999999999999 )
  • Square roots are allowed
  • You are not allowed to change “=” to “≠” (not equal to) or manipulate the result in any way

Take a crack at it, then scroll down past the dice to see how it’s done.

Last warning before answers!

[Image courtesy of The Progzilla Files.]

Let’s start by knocking out the easiest one.

2 2 2 = 6 can be resolved as 2+2+2=6.

6 6 6 = 6 can be resolved as 6+6-6=6 or 6-6+6=6.

They get a little trickier from here, involving multiple operations.

3 3 3 = 6 can be resolved as 3×3-3=6, becoming 9-3=6.

Fractions also come into play for a few of these equations. (This can also be represented as division.)

5 5 5 = 6 can be resolved as 5+(5/5)=6, becoming 5+1=6.

7 7 7 = 6 can be resolved as 7-(7/7)=6, becoming 7-1=6.

[Image courtesy of TAF.org.]

Okay, we’re halfway there, and now the square root rule gives us a hint regarding how to resolve the 4 equation.

4 4 4 = 6 can be 4+4-(√4)=6, becoming 8-2=6.

And this formula gives us a way to crack the 8 equation.

8 8 8 = 6 can be resolved as 8-√(√(8+8))=6, becoming 8-√(√16)=6, becoming 8-(√4)=6, becoming 8-2=6.

Square roots also come into play in solving the 9 equation.

9 9 9 = 6 can be resolved as (9+9)/(√9)=6, becoming 18/3=6.

Now, admittedly, at this point, I was stumped. I had two equations left, and no ideas regarding how to proceed.

0 0 0 = 6

1 1 1 = 6

So, I reached out to a mathematician pal of mine — the same one who helped me crack the diabolical Seesaw Puzzle from Brooklyn Nine-Nine — and he immediately knew what to do: use an exclamation point.

In mathematics, an exclamation point represents a factorial, the product of every positive number between the given number and zero.

For instance, 6! represents 6x5x4x3x2x1, or 720.

1 1 1 = 6 can now be resolved as (1+1+1)!=6, becoming 3!=6, becoming 3x2x1=6.

But what about 0 0 0 = 6?

Factorials to the rescue again! You see, 0! equals 1. So we can use the 1 equation as a template for this one.

0 0 0 = 6 can be resolved as (0!+0!+0!)!=6, becoming (1+1+1)!=6, becoming 3!=6, becoming 3x2x1=6.

And there you have it, the Sixes puzzle conquered with nothing but crafty math and puzzly skills. An excellent start to a new year of brain teaser challenges!


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