Puzzly Podcasts: Song Exploder as Truth Window

There’s no place like home . . . especially if your home has a truth window installed.

“A truth window,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an opening in a wall surface, created to reveal the layers or components within the wall.” The inner workings of a house become elevated to the status of a treasured possession, displayed in a structure reminiscent of a small china cabinet or an oil portrait’s frame. Often, though not always, the material seen through the window’s glass pane is straw, simultaneously intricate in its multiplicity (a straw bale is made up of so many individual strands) and deceptively simple, rustic. Reminiscent of how The Wizard of Oz‘s scarecrow thought that his straw construction necessarily meant the absence of a brain, only to find out at the story’s end that he had been a brilliant, complex thinker all along.

A 2011 blog post by Geoff Manaugh compares truth windows to cannulas installed in the sides of cows to make their digestive systems accessible, and to the purely hypothetical idea of installing an upside-down periscope into the sidewalk of a dense urban area, showing off the infrastructure below (“subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers”). A truth window is a bloodless dissection, an invitation to contemplate—even treasure—the buried mechanics that we normally take for granted.

Hrishikesh Hirway began the music podcast Song Exploder in 2014 with a similar invitation in mind. His recent TED Talk, “What you discover when you really listen,” begins with Hirway drawing a comparison between a song and a house. The musical artist puts all this work, all these materials (all these bales of straw!) into a song, and while the listener is able to appreciate the beauty of the finished product as they walk past it on the sidewalk, they are not usually able to appreciate the work or the materials, the insides, the layers. They need a truth window. They need a skilled interviewer to join the musical artist in breaking down the song into its component parts.

An example of a truth window showing off straw.

Hirway explains, “Inside a song, there are all these parts that get imagined, and written, and recorded, that are so full of thought and beauty, but only the people who made the song ever get to hear those pieces on their own. All those pieces get smushed together in the final version that comes out.” Enter Song Exploder, in which Hirway sits down with a different musical artist each episode to trace the evolution of one of their songs. Raw clips of individual elements from the song—a beat here, a backing vocal track there—are interspersed throughout explanations from the artists of how the song grew, layers locking together into fantastical, never-before-seen structures like in a game of Tetris.

Continuing the house metaphor, Hirway says, “I thought this way, an artist could bring a listener in, and give them a guided tour of this house they made. They could point to the foundation and say, ‘This is how the song got started,’ and then as more and more layers get built on top, eventually the full song gets revealed.” Over the course of eight years, Song Exploder has featured a wide range of musical artists, including Willow Smith, Yo-Yo Ma, Nine Inch Nails, The Microphones, and The Roots. The staggering array of guests spans genres, fame levels, and stylistic approaches to music’s creation. Similarly, there are a variety of approaches to thinking about music’s creation; each artist tackles the challenge of co-constructing their truth window with Hirway differently.

Neko Case, in the episode on her song “Last Lion of Albion,” is focused on the technical details, the use of vocoder and reverb and the inability to harmonize successfully with herself. She tells guest host Thao Nguyen (of Thao With the Get Down Stay Down), “I like reverb because it’s showing what your human voice is vibrating, and how that reacts to that surroundings. Like how far am I from that wall? Or is this room made of concrete? Is there a lot of glass in here? Is there wood? . . . It kind of reminds you that the room is an instrument in a way.” Christine and the Queens takes a slightly different tack when dissecting “Doesn’t Matter,” speaking in heaps of figurative language. She compares the song as a whole to a Greek tragedy complete with choral input, compares distortion to “doing lace details,” and says that the mistakes she heard on the track and chose to keep, “To me, sounds like a spine . . . It feels like if you remove that, everything crumbles.”

Regardless of whether an artist is speaking about the nitty-gritty technical behind-the-scenes of a song or the more emotive, poetic work that went into its construction, a common thread of attention to structure is sewn throughout these podcast episodes. The structure of a house, the structure of a room, the structure of a skeleton. Without fail, in each episode, Song Exploder opens up a little door in a song’s wall and waves listeners through, taking us on a tour of the subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, and sewers contained within, showing us first the haystacks and then the needles strewn throughout, sharp and shining, prizes you might never have thought to look for otherwise.


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A Labyrinth of Curiosities

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles, has been described as labyrinthine, with its dimly lit, densely populated corridors. Whereas many might think of a labyrinth as something to solve, a challenge to puzzle their way through, the museum will not reward you for seeking a definitive path through its halls. The message of this small building packed with glowing dioramas; wall-mounted phones; ghostly, operatic wailing; a rooftop, dove-flocked garden; and countless other gems, is that there are many true paths and many contradictory realities in the world.

Please do not saw through the walls of the museum.

A 2018 profile of the museum argues that your visit will be most fulfilling if you “lose yourself,” not if you find your way. No need to mimic Theseus—the mannequin hands displaying cat’s cradle configurations on the second floor have the only string you’ll need on this journey.

Even the most intricate, bedeviling maze has walls, some kind of structure to give your lost wandering a shape. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is no exception, grouping its exhibits according to five thematic categories: Pins and Needles, Shoes and Stockings, Body Parts and Secretions, Thunder and Lightning, and Insects and Other Living Things. A wide range of curiosities inhabit this taxonomy, from skulls and horns, to plaques bearing folk wisdom about bees, to photographs of the dogs that the USSR sent into space. One room appears almost to pulse with vibrant stereofloral radiographs “revealing,” according to their accompanying description, “unexpectedly complex internal architecture and graceful geometries, [and reminding] us of jellyfish or gothic cathedrals.”

Another room is papered in letters supposedly written to Mount Wilson Observatory. Eight years ago, when I finished touring the museum for the second day in a row, I purchased from the gift shop a bound collection of these letters, entitled No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again. Fittingly, I have always struggled with where in my own home library’s categorical structure to place this book—Science? Urban studies? Science fiction? Inevitably, I always capitulate to slotting it in alongside poetry books, naming poetry a kind of grab-bag genre and also honoring the beauty of lines from the letters like, “The moon is a sphere and it works the clouds by night; it is not a Planet, & should not be interfered with.”

Please do not eat the Moon.

Whether any of these letters were ever actually written to Mount Wilson Observatory is a mystery, as is the question of whether the Italian opera diva highlighted in one exhibit ever lived to sing a single aria. Lawrence Weschler’s book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology is an enthralling work of investigation into the museum—its background, its design, its veracity. And not for lack of admirable effort, the book offers little to no conclusive evidence one way or the other as to how rooted in fact the exhibits, altogether, may be.

A one-star review of the museum on Tripadvisor ends, “I wish I’d stayed home and read the newspaper instead.” If some semblance of fact-checking and predictable, familiar organizational categories is important to you, then yes, the newspaper might be preferable to taking a trip to this dimly lit cabinet of wonder. If, in contrast, you want to feel like the Minotaur, lost in a labyrinth and caught between realms (human and animal, factual and fantastical), then the Museum of Jurassic Technology is the perfect destination. While the museum did temporarily close down during the early stages of the pandemic, admission is now available via advance appointment Thursday through Sunday. If you’re ever in Los Angeles, go ahead; resist the urge to solve the maze or the mysteries and plan to lose yourself instead.


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Escape Rooms and Bottle Episodes: A Condensed, Horrific History

When they appear in sitcoms, escape rooms are played for laughs and sentimentality, true to their common real-life role as a fun diversion and a team-bonding activity. On the other hand, horror media has a lot to say about the sinister side of being trapped in a room and dependent on only your wits to free you; a whole bevy of twenty-first-century films depict escape rooms from Hell. Consider the horrific potential of pairing claustrophobia with psychologically intricate tasks, and it makes sense that the recent rise of escape rooms as a pastime would be accompanied by a rise in twisting that pastime for terrifying purposes.

Escape room horror is not, however, a new concept, despite the modern appellation. Before No Escape Room (2016), Riddle Room (2016), Escape Room (2018), Escape Room (2019), Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions (2020), and even before Fermat’s Room—which came out in 2007, the same year as the first documented real-life escape room—there was the 1997 movie Cube. In Cube, six strangers are trapped within a harrowingly booby-trapped setup of cubic rooms, and must rely on math and logic to escape death.

“It’s like something out of that twilighty show about that zone,” Homer said before entering his three-dimensional predicament in this Halloween episode of The Simpsons.

I am not here to recommend that you watch Cube, not unless you’re a fan of creative, vivid gore. Still, it is remarkable as a precursor to escape room horror directly inspired by actual escape rooms. Back in 1994 when director and writer Vincenzo Natali first completed the script, the closest relative to Natali’s vision was the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”

“Five Characters” originally aired in December 1961, sandwiched between episodes about time travel and World-War-II-era body-swapping. Compared to those premises, the episode’s set up is simple. Frustratingly so; the lack of bells and whistles is the source of the horror. The characters who wake up trapped together don’t even have names: they are simply, according to narrator Rod Serling, “Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an army major—a collection of question marks.”

These question marks play out the episode in essentially a featureless void. There are no brainteasers or riddles to unravel, no booby traps to dodge or calculations to perform. Rather, the puzzles are both larger and more bare-bones, existential: who are they, where are they, and is it possible to be somewhere else? Is it worth it to be somewhere else?

We might also call this story an example of bottle episode horror. In a 2014 interview, New Girl showrunner Elizabeth Meriweather said about the bottle episode, “Background Check,” “For a bottle episode, the stakes have to be very, very high, or else you’re feeling the claustrophobia of not leaving the loft.” This is a good rule of thumb for a sitcom, but what about a horror show, wherein you want to feel the claustrophobia? I’d argue that high stakes are just as necessary for bringing the claustrophobia home as for obscuring its presence; the line between effective comedy and effective horror, here, is thin.

The Community episode “Cooperative Calligraphy” makes no effort to obscure the claustrophobia of the situation; rules were made to be broken.

Does “Five Characters” offer the emotional depth and palpable claustrophobia necessary to bring out the horror of the situation? A review posted on The Twilight Zone Project seems divided on the issue, speaking to the episode’s building suspense but also calling the characters “cartoonish” and the twist “cheap.” “Five Characters,” you see, concludes with the reveal that the clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper and army major aren’t just playing a game of escape; they themselves are playthings, dolls in a charity toy drive bucket.

I have seen this episode several times, and still don’t know what exactly to make of this twist. What meaning can be gleaned from it, what metaphor? Uncertain what exactly the cast’s toy status tells us about humanity or anything else that lofty, I’d rather think of the episode as an historical artifact, and situate the concept of the players as the playthings in the context of the escape room and/or bottle episode horror television that has followed in its wake. Stay tuned for next week, when I examine a clear, modern descendant of “Five Characters in Search of An Exit.” (No, it’s not Cube.) Let the suspense build . . .


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Piecing the Language Together

New Girl’s Winston Bishop doesn’t let his colorblindness get in the way of his passion for jigsaw puzzles. Should you take a page out of his book?

In January, I came across a tweet from poet NM Esc, also known as Neon Mashurov, reading, “I think translating activates the same part of my brain as doing jigsaw puzzles, which, for anyone who has never seen the absolutely obsessive way I tackle jigsaw puzzles, means I might have a new favorite project genre.” As a monolingual writer, I lack the tools necessary to fully immerse myself in the jigsaw experience of transforming, from scratch, one language into another. As someone who has assisted a former classmate with the process of editing poetry translations, however, I see exactly why a jigsaw puzzle would be an obvious point of non-linguistic comparison.

Each word in a translated poem should accurately evoke the meaning of the original; that much is obvious. Less obviously, depending on the poem and its style and artistic or ideological goals, a translated word might also need to evoke the original’s shape, its sound, its rhythm, its rhyme. It might need to carry a whole world of connotations on its back. There is rarely just one option for the right word in a translation, so the translating poet must shift through a mess of word-pieces, seeking whichever will lock into place exactly with the others, fitting comfortably and bringing the desired larger image to life.

There are limitations to this metaphor. Mainly, because as Willis Barnstone explained in the 2001 piece, “An ABC of Translating Poetry,” “A translation is an x-ray, not a xerox.” The poetry translator’s goal is not to perfectly recreate the image on a box. Rather, it is as though the translator is looking at the image on a box and then imagining what lies just beneath. The skin is stripped away and a skeleton is constructed for the image, from deduction and imagination, in a kind of cryptozoological (cryptopaleontological?) act of artistry. We see not what readers of the original language see, but we see what made the original language work. What made it stand up and move. This might not be the work of a jigsaw-solver, but it certainly presents a puzzle.

Barnstone’s work also tells us, “A good translation is a good joke. Reader, you are fooled.” A successful pun considers, transforms, and makes art from a word’s multiple meanings and dimensions, and a successful translation does the same. Translating poetry is fundamentally an act of wordplay. One must play with the words as if with Lincoln Logs or Play-Doh—or jigsaw pieces! In an earlier post on poetry, I featured the above comic strip, in which Nancy takes a creative, boundary-breaking approach to solving the jigsaw puzzle of her surroundings, and perhaps that is the most accurate metaphor for translation.

In a 2018 conversation with NPR, translator and poet Aaron Coleman posits, “The language lapses that inhibit an ideal interpretation can ultimately be ‘a creative, productive failure.’” Coleman goes on to say, “Maybe it can open up a new way for us to see what can happen in English and what can happen in Spanish, for me, or whatever the original language is.” Nancy, in switching around the puzzle pieces, has engaged in creative, productive failure, opening up a new way for us to see what can happen in the language of the puzzle. I love this perspective on translation, as someone who would not typically be considered to have the language skills necessary to translate from one language to another.

If you too are hesitant to try poetry translation because of the limits of your language, I’d like to invite you to go ahead and try anyway, even if you have to lean on Google Translate every step of the way. Even if you resort to marking some sections entirely untranslatable. In the words of The Magic School Bus’ Ms. Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy,” this National Poetry Month! Find some creative, productive failures that open up new ways for you to look at language. Maybe your finished product will be the verbal equivalent of Winston’s jumble of a jigsaw puzzle at the top of this post; that doesn’t mean you can’t call it a masterpiece.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Person of Interest

In 2011, speculative CBS thriller Person of Interest began with the premise that a computer genius named Finch (played by Michael Emerson) had built an AI that could tell when acts of violence were about to occur in New York City. In order to intervene, he hired a former special operative named Reese (Jim Caviezel). The only information that the AI ever provides is a social security number; each episode, this leaves Finch and Reese to solve the central question: does this SSN belong to a victim of an impending crime, or a perpetrator? Do they need to be stopped, or saved?

Solving this question typically involves a veritable cornucopia of guesswork, research, hacking, plot twists, and pieces of paper taped to walls and connected by webs of string (one of my favorite TV tropes, featured in Supernatural and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Chess also features prominently, as do various secretive systems of communication. No episode is quite as likely to appeal to your inner solver, though, as season four, episode two, “Nautilus,” which aired on September 30th, 2014.

In this episode named for its chambered nautilus shell motif, Finch and Reese receive the SSN for chess grand master and college student Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard). She’s AWOL from school and chess in pursuit of a mysterious game’s prize. The game began with a post on an obscure message board: an image of a nautilus, captioned, “If you seek enlightenment, be the first to walk through the chambers.” There was data hidden in the image of a nautilus, and it sent Claire off down the rabbit hole.

Following her, Finch watches as she pulls a tab of paper from a lost dog sign, with a nautilus watermarked behind the numbers. After calling the number leads to nothing, Finch realizes: “It’s not a phone number . . . it’s multiplication.” Multiplying produces GPS coordinates, pointing to a location in Harlem.

There, a mural of seemingly random shapes (painted by artist Apache Gonzalez) covers a wall. Once again, there’s the nautilus. Back in his office, Finch studies a photo of the mural, finally recognizing it as a variation on a Bongard Problem. He explains, “This particular type of puzzle presents two sets of diagrams. The diagrams in the first set share a common feature. The blocks never overlap with the curved lines. Conversely, in the second set, the blocks do touch the curves, but there’s another common element.”

Reese interjects, “There’s a different number of blocks in each diagram.”

“Using this pattern,” Finch continues, “I can fill in the blank space with the only number of blocks left out, which is three, thus solving the puzzle, creating a sort of three-pronged arch.” Googling, Reese finds a matching photo of an arch in Central Park.

That night, Claire is near the arch, standing in traffic. When Reese interrogates her about her apparent death wish, they’re interrupted, but later, the answer comes to light. If you stand at the right point in the street, banners for “motorcycle safety month” visually blend together to show the faint image of a nautilus. Beneath the nautilus: pictures of traffic lights that Finch correctly identifies as the equivalent of Braille dots. They spell out, “184th and 3rd.”

Claire’s next found in a biker bar at 184th and 3rd, staring at a bulletin board decorated in gang logos. One features a skull with nautiluses for eyes; letters surround the skull in a seemingly random arrangement. At an otherwise dead end, Reese sits at his desk, rewriting the letters over and over, seeking a scrambled word, until Fusco (Kevin Chapman) determines that the letters refer to musical notes, forming the tune to “New York, New York.” Reese is able to deduce a location: the Empire State Building’s observation deck.

Here on out, the puzzles become simpler, less compelling; from a Doylist standpoint (referring to author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s perspective, as opposed to fictional character John Watson’s), we might assume that the writers have decided that it’s time for the plot to dominate, turning the puzzles into mere perfunctory means to an end. I’m convinced, however, by the Watsonian explanation, that Claire has sufficiently proven herself, and the AI game-master is content now to lead her by the hand.

But why the nautilus shell? In the episode, computer hacker Root (Amy Acker) refers to the nautilus as one of nature’s examples of a logarithmic spiral. It’s commonly also referred to as an example of the golden ratio, but as explained in “Math as Myth: What looks like the golden ratio is sometimes just fool’s gold,” that’s not so true. Is that they key—that the prize Claire seeks is fool’s gold?

The episode’s primary puzzles have been solved, and the series has come to an end (though it can be streamed on HBO Max). Still, this one question of the nautilus’ significance remains. What is the symbolic connection between a nautilus shell’s chambers and the “enlightenment” the game promises? Is enlightenment encoded in the logarithmic spiral, or in something more particular to the mollusk itself? I don’t have the answers, but as the nineteenth-century poem “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. shows, Person of Interest’s screenwriters were not the first to see something spiritual in the nautilus, and I doubt they’ll be the last.

In closing, I offer the following excerpt from Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative to mull over in your own pursuit of the nautilus shell’s deeper meaning:

The spiral does not belong to the nautilus shell, unless it also belongs to the whirlpool, the hurricane, the galaxy, the double helix of DNA, the tendrils of a common vine. If there are golden ratios that govern the structures of our bodies and our world, then of course there must be such shapes among the less measurable aspects of existence.


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A Rising Tide

The New Yorker declared in 1959 that the “most important person in the world of the crossword puzzle” was a woman: Margaret Farrar, then the crossword editor of the New York Times. Here in the twenty-first century, whether the most important person in the world is a woman or not seems to be a thornier question. A 2014 work of criticism by constructor Anna Shectman reported that the crossword world was very much dominated by men, and that this problem had only worsened in the previous two decades. An important development since that piece’s publication is the Los Angeles Times’ recent announcement that PuzzleNation’s own editor, Patti Varol, will be taking over as its crossword editor, but while this is a huge step forward, a lot of work remains.

In her Washington Post piece earlier this month, “I’m a Black woman who creates crossword puzzles. That’s rare, but it shouldn’t be,” Portia Lundie summarized the central ironic issue at play: “crosswords as we know them were standardized by a profound woman, yet the authority on language still seems to be in the hands of a few White men.”

For Women’s History Month, rather than looking back at Margaret Farrar, we want to look forward: toward the women making crossword history in the here and now, paving the way for a more equitable future. Toward Anna Shectman, Portia Lundie (see the “Three of a Kind” crossword for more of Lundie’s work), and other profound women seeking not to standardize crosswords, but to complicate the idea that standardization should be the ideal.

We don’t believe in just one spider-themed hero, just one important woman, or just one approach to constructing crosswords!

These days, The Inkubator is a funded and functional crossword subscription service, sending puzzles by women and nonbinary constructors to subscribers a few times each month. As their mission statement puts it, the project serves as “a venue for women to exhibit and get paid for high-quality puzzles, especially (but not exclusively) puzzles that may not have a chance at mainstream publications due to feminist, political, or provocative content.”

Back in October 2018, The Inkubator was just a dream with a Kickstarter. Around this time, Hailey Gavin interviewed co-founder and constructor Laura Braunstein about her vision for The Inkubator’s future. In response to a question about the suffocating nature of mainstream crossword norms, Braunstein put forth the inspiring challenge: “If this is a pluralistic culture and people are threatening that, could the puzzle be a place where we fight back? Could the puzzle be a place of resistance?”

Braunstein nods to another project, spearheaded by Deb Amlen, Amy Reynaldo, and Patti Varol. Women of Letters is a puzzle packet by some of the industry’s top constructors who happen to be women. The puzzles serve as an incentive for solvers to donate to women-centric causes—if you give at least ten dollars to one of the charities listed on the project’s page, and email your screenshot to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com, you’ll receive the packet in return. By combining a platform for crossword-constructing women with a call for financial support for activism, Women of Letters shows us a concrete way in which the puzzle can be a place of resistance.

Even if it didn’t link arms with other causes, Women of Letters, like The Inkubator, would be a remarkable example of women fighting for a pluralistic culture. It is a radical act just to represent an alternative set of perspectives to those typically laid out in the grids that we allow to define valuable knowledge (“Crosswords are strange arbiters of cultural relevance,” after all). These projects are especially radical because they put a name to how these constructors’ perspectives defy institutional norms, shining a light on gender’s importance. Portia Lundie put it elegantly: “In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere,” no such thing as an objective relationship to language or to knowledge of the world around us.

A pluralistic culture can only be represented in the plural, by a rising tide of women, all with different views from different places, lifting all boats. Solidarity matters more than figureheads when it comes to making real change.


Daily POP walks the walk, regularly bringing you puzzles constructed and edited by women.

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