Where Puzzles, Knitting, and Spycraft Combine!

You might have seen the news story last year about a woman who chronicled numerous train delays with her knitting while she worked on a scarf. (Though you probably didn’t hear that it sold on eBay for over 7,000 Euros.)

Knitting is a clever way to both eat up downtime waiting for the train and also document how long that train made you wait. Moreover, it’s sending a message in an unusual fashion — an image that speaks volumes.

And one thing we’ve learned over the years is that when you can send a message without words, spy agencies will jump on that bandwagon.

So it should come as no surprise to you that knitting has been part of spycraft techniques for decades.

True, it is far more common from someone to simply passively observe the enemy WHILE knitting and hiding in plain sight. This was very common in countries all over Europe. When you consider how often volunteers were encouraged to knit warm hats, scarves, and gloves for soldiers during wartime, it wouldn’t be unusual to see people knitting all over the place.

Some passed secret messages hidden in balls of yarn. Elizabeth Bently, an American who spied for the Soviet Union during WWII, snuck plans for B-29 bombs and other aircraft construction information to her contacts in her knitting bag.

Another agent, Phyllis Latour Doyle, had different codes to choose from on a length of silk, so she kept it with her knitting to remain inconspicuous. She would poke each code she used with a pin so it wouldn’t be employed a second time — making it harder for the Germans to break them.

But there was a small contingent of folks who went deeper, actually encoding messages in their knitting to pass on intelligence agencies.

It makes sense. Knitting is essentially binary code. Whereas binary code is made up of ones and zeroes (and some key spacing), knitting consists of knit stitches and purl stitches, each with different qualities that make for an easily discernable pattern, if you know what you’re looking for. So, an attentive spy or informant could knit chains of smooth stitches and little bumps, hiding information as they record it.

When you factor Morse code into the mix, knitting seems like an obvious technique for transmitting secret messages.

[What is this Christmas sweater trying to tell us?]

During World Wars I and II, this was used to keep track of enemy train movements, deliveries, soldiers’ patrol patterns, cargo shipments, and more, particularly in Belgium and France. There are examples of codes hidden through knitting, embroidery, hooked rugs, and other creations, often right under the noses of the enemy.

As more intelligence agencies picked up on the technique, it started to breed paranoia, even in organizations that continued to use knitters as passive spies and active encryption agents.

There were rumors that Germans were knitting entire sweaters full of information, then unraveling them and hanging the threads in special doorways where the letters of the alphabet were marked at different heights, allowing these elaborate messages to be decoded.

Of course, this could be apocryphal. There’s no proof such overly detailed sweaters were ever produced or unraveled and decoded in this manner. (Plus, a knitter would have to be pretty exact with their spacing for the doorway-alphabet thing to work seamlessly.)

During the Second World War, the UK’s Office of Censorship actually banned people from using the mail to send knitting patterns abroad, for fear that they contained coded messages.

Naturally, a puzzly mind could do all sorts of things with an idea like this. You could encode secret love notes for someone you admire or care for, or maybe encrypt a snide comment in a scarf for somebody you don’t particularly like. It’s passive aggressive, sure, but it’s also hilarious and very creative.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to unravel this gift from my aunt and see if she’s talking crap about me through my adorable mittens.

Happy puzzling, everybody!

[For more information on this topic, check out this wonderful article by Natalie Zarrelli.]


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Eyes Open #8

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Welcome to the latest puzzle in my ongoing series, Eyes Open, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights protests.

With one of the most consequential elections in our country’s history looming large, I wanted to dedicate a puzzle in October to African-American political campaigns, and it wasn’t hard to find inspiration.

The subject of today’s puzzle never stopped breaking new ground, crashing through glass ceilings, and blazing fresh trails for both women and African-Americans.

She was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She was the first black woman elected to Congress, eventually serving for seven terms. She would hire only women for her office.

But her greatest challenge was vying for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972.

Battling racism and sexism alongside the better-funded campaigns of George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and segregation-happy George Wallace — as well as the negative rhetoric of doubters like Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, and Louis Stokes — she ran an impressive campaign, though she failed to win the nomination.

“When I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.”

The title for this puzzle comes from a statement by Robert Gottlieb, who served as a congressional intern for her and helped design the campaign poster quoted in today’s puzzle.

Her influence and impact cannot be overstated.

There’s no trick or gimmick to today’s grid. It’s a straightforward exploration of an intriguing individual at a crucial moment in our country’s history.

I hope this puzzle serves to both engage you as a solver and encourage you to learn more about this fascinating individual on your own.

eyes open 8 grid pic

[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.

Crosswordese in a Random Picture

It’s always fun when you encounter crosswordese in the wild. By definition, crosswordese involves words you only see in crosswords, so a real-world encounter is a rare and curious thing.

Someone posted the following picture on Reddit, in a post titled “How NYT constructors dress, presumably.”

(It differs wildly depending on the constructor, by the way.)

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to it. But there are several classic crossword entries in this picture.

The A-LINE dress, the YSL on the purse, the ECRU shade. Quite the OLIO of puzzly elements.

Sure, the dress isn’t MIDI — though the coat might be! — but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Naturally, the commenters on that page suggested other crossword entries that might be out of sight, joking there’s an ETUI in her purse, an OBI missing from her coat, an EPEE in her concealed right hand, or ESTEE perfume in the air.

I for one suspect she’s close to her destination, her ETA just a SEC or two away.

Is she in EUR. somewhere? Perhaps near the RHINE or the RHONE or the AARE? Is she in OSLO?

Can you find any other examples of crosswordese lurking in this photo, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Or maybe you have another picture packed with puzzly potential? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A Magic Puzzle Box? (Solved on YouTube For Your Convenience)

One of the cooler bits of promotion I’ve seen from a gaming company recently was executed by the team at Magic: The Gathering for their new Zendikar Rising brand.

For the uninitiated, Magic: The Gathering is a collectible card game where players buy starter decks and booster packs of cards in order to build the best possible deck with which to battle their friends in card-playing combat. Each player is a wizard known as a planeswalker, playing cards that represent creatures summoned, spells cast, magical items used, and more.

So what was their intriguing promotional tactic?

They sent out a bespoke chest — a puzzle box to entice players, gamers, and social media influencers — accompanied by a riddle which offered clues for each stage of the puzzle box to help solvers unravel its secrets.

Now, sending a puzzly chest of treasure to gamers is an instant win. If you’re a fan of fantasy narratives like those woven into the gameplay of Magic: The Gathering, this is the perfect enticement.

But that was only the company’s first stroke of genius in their Zendikar Rising campaign.

Their second was sending a box to YouTubers Rose Ellen Dix and Rosie Spaughton.

Rose and Rosie are a charming married couple who post all sorts of comedic content, social commentary, and slice-of-life vlog posts on YouTube. They also host a gaming channel where their specialty is being very bad at games.

So when I saw that they were tackling the M:TG bespoke mystery box for their next Let’s Play Games video, I knew it would make for terrific viewing.

I was not disappointed.

First, they read the letter accompanying the puzzle box, which detailed their role as adventurers trying to sort out this treasure box while the rest of the party continued on their adventure.

Their mission was to solve the riddle and uncover the treasure inside the mystery box.

Here’s the riddle that awaited them:

A brave adventurer
must apply pressure to the Planeswalkers
and they will venture
to reveal the key to their powers.

Strength in numbers is a sign of great force,
but only one truth can endure this course.
Find the pin that reveals the way,
and set it free before you’re led astray.

True secrets can only be seen
when you can align with the machine.
It will twist and it will turn
and it will be spun until your fingers burn.
Wait until you feel the lift
to reveal underneath the glorious gift.

The end of your journey arrives
Hold tight the stone and consider your lives.
For they will be pulled together by an invisible magic
Push down your might so it will not be tragic.
Turn it but a quarter of the way.
All four stones will ensure their sway,
Revealing a secret panel you must remove
and seek the answer that your talents will approve.

Brave adventurer, thy quest has come to an end,
but fear not, for your gifts will tend
to your strength in magic in Zendikar.

While Rose immediately suggests throwing the box or setting it on fire, Rosie focuses on the logo on top of the box, and Rose begins pressing on it. Eventually, Rosie pressed on the right spot, revealing a secret compartment and a key.

The key opened the outer box, which revealed two smaller puzzle boxes, both wrapped in fabric.

Rosie’s box had two dials on the lid, which both had to be turned to a certain point for the box to open. Rosie quickly figured this out, revealing two booster decks for their new Zendikar Rising game, as well as two small metal pyramids that would be needed for the next stage of the solve.

Rose’s box appeared to be nailed or screwed shut, but one of the pins could be removed, allowing the lid to slide open sideways and reveal the treasure inside: two more booster decks and two more small metal pyramids.

Inside the main box, below the two smaller treasure boxes, was an elaborate panel with four dials and two holes. The trick was to place the pyramids in the correct spaces, turn them a certain way, and lift the panel to reveal the treasure. This required a bit of trial and error, but the dynamic duo would not be denied.

The panel lifted, revealing two Zendikar Rising Commander Decks. The Commander Decks are designed specifically to introduce new players to the game and ease them into the world and gameplay. (The cards in the Booster Packs can augment and add to the Commander Decks.)

While the puzzle box is hardly the most challenging out there, it was an absolute delight to watch Rose and Rosie tackle it. They’re effortlessly hilarious, and their frustration (as well as the bickering that ensues) was very entertaining.

Also, it’s thoroughly enjoyable to hear two people who don’t play Magic: The Gathering describe the game. The mix of sheer enthusiasm and total vagueness regarding actual gameplay did a pretty solid job of making the game seem exciting and inviting.

I look forward to seeing them try their new Zendikar Rising sets out. It will probably be a terrific gateway video for new players.

Well played, Magic: The Gathering.


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Puzzles in Plain Sight: Secret Message in Hollywood Edition!

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[Image courtesy of MathTutorDVD.]

I am fascinated by codebreaking, secret codes, and that whole subgenre of puzzle solving. Probably because I’m pretty bad at it.

Don’t get me wrong, I can crack your bog-standard cryptogram or alphanumeric message. I’m fairly good at identifying patterns and deciphering codes when it comes to simple three-, four-, and five-digit answers in most escape room scenarios.

But when you start getting into encryptions where a letter’s meaning can shift as the coded message evolves — like the one employed by a devious 10-year-old kid in a puzzly letter to Santa years ago — and I quickly find myself stymied.

It leaves me all the more impressed when I read about codebreaking efforts as ambitious as ENIGMA and as silly (and, yet, still quite impressive) as Futurama fans cracking the multiple alien codes in the show just from random snippets.

But codebreaking isn’t just about cleverness, pattern-recognition, and determination.

Sometimes, it’s about knowing where to look.

For instance, in Los Angeles, there have been secret messages being transmitted in plain sight for decades.

Just cast your eyes to the light atop the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles.

The building was designed to look like a stack of records on a turntable, complete with the spindle pointing skyward. It opened in 1956, and the president of Capitol Records at the time, Alan Livingston, wanted the light to send out a message in Morse code. On opening day, Leila Morse — the granddaughter of Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code — turned the light on.

The secret message being broadcast? “Hollywood.”

The message blinked away for decades. But it wasn’t the only message the light atop Capitol Records would send over the years.

In 1992, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Capitol Records, the code was changed to “Capitol 50” for the entire year. Then it went back to the traditional “Hollywood” code.

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A decade later, it was changed again. What was the message? A secret announcement that would excite millions of pop music fans…

“Katy Perry. Prism. October 22, 2013.”

But as far as anyone can tell, nobody noticed. This teaser announcement never made the local or national news.

And so far, there hasn’t been a secret message since. At least, not that anyone has noticed.

Still, best keep your eyes on that light. You never know if your favorite artist might send you a secret signal. And it sure beats looking for backwards messages in heavy metal songs.


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Farewell, FarmVille.

FarmVille is coming to an end.

Be honest with me. When’s the last time you even thought about it?

Well, you’re thinking about it now, and you’ve got a few more months to ponder its peculiar existence before it vanishes into the ether along with your abandoned garden plot.

But why are we talking about it here?

Yes, although this is not a puzzle game, there’s no denying a connection between FarmVille and the puzzle community. (And not just how puzzling it is that FarmVille ever became as popular as it did.)

There’s no refuting the metrics. In the Venn diagram of crossword/puzzle solvers and FarmVille users, there’s plenty of overlap. They scratch very different itches in terms of what someone gets out of engaging with them, but both did become a daily part of many people’s routines.

Of course with FarmVille, that was by design. Except for keeping track of your solving stats through puzzle apps, there’s no penalty for not solving crosswords every day the way there was with FarmVille. The puzzle crops will not wither and die in your absence. Though I have it on good authority that the puzzles will miss you.

Anyway, I can’t NOT write about the end of FarmVille. We cover games as well as puzzles here, and FarmVille was one of the biggest games in the world at one time. And it did so by engaging plenty of users that weren’t typical gamers.

FarmVille launched in 2009 as part of Facebook’s social gaming platform, and that year alone, Adweek reported that there were 73 MILLION monthly active users. (For comparison, that was a fifth of Facebook’s entire user base at the time.)

The company behind FarmVille, Zynga, has never published FarmVille-specific user stats. I haven’t been able to verify peak usership or where the usership stands now. The best I could find was a 2013 claim that the sequel, FarmVille 2, had 40 million active monthly users.

Now, to be fair, it’s only going away as a Facebook-accessible program. You can still play it as a mobile app, along with FarmVille 2, FarmVille 2: Country Escape, FarmVille 2: Tropic Escape, and FarmVille 2: Revenge of the Neglected Turnips. (Okay, I made that last one up.)

There is also a FarmVille 3 on the horizon. For some reason.

Although the game officially closes by December 31, in-app purchases for the Facebook version of the game close November 17th, so if you’re feeling nostalgic and want one last chance to blow real-world money there (or to spend credits you still have in the game), better get to it.

So what do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Are you sad to see it go? How many hours did you leave behind in that farm? How many people did you consider unfriending just to stop their requests for FarmVille-related nonsense? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.


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