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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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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A Collection of Cracking Crossword Clues

Someone recently asked me about my favorite crossword clue, and after mentioning four or five off the top of my head, I cut myself off and tried to explain that it’s impossible for me to pick one.

So many clues are out there that surprised me, or outwitted me, or made me laugh, or made me think in an unexpected way. I could never narrow it down..

Regular readers who have seen my reviews of various crossword tournament puzzles will recall I like to highlight favorite clues.

I actually keep track of clues from constructors as I solve various crosswords. Not only are they often witty, hilarious, and/or impressive, but they inspire me as a puzzler to always try to find entertaining, engaging new angles for these crucial crossword elements.

So today, I’d like to pull some favorites from my personal clue vault and give them some time in the spotlight.

(I’m crediting the constructor listed on the byline for each clue. These clues may have been created elsewhere and reused, created by the constructor, or changed by an editor, I have no way of knowing. So I’m just doing my best to give credit where credit is due.)

angeloz

One of the most engaging aspects of crossword cluing is how constructors can accomplish so much with just a few words.

I love a good misdirection clue, because it not only has a straightforward meaning that sends you one way, but it has a true secondary meaning that usually only emerges once you’ve considered the clue for a bit.

The word ANTE lends itself to this sort of cluing — particularly given the meaning of “house” with regards to casinos and cards — and I think Janie Smulyan’s “House payments” clue was the best one I’ve seen in a while.

Similarly, Peter Gordon is a whiz at making a few words speak volumes, and his clue “Foot in ‘the door'” made my mind go in a few directions before you finally land on IAMB.

Of course, it’s not just concise phrasing that lends itself to wordplay. Patti Varol led solvers down a delightful garden path with the clue “They may be called on account of rain,” which cleverly clues the answer CABS.

You can also use multiple examples to mislead solvers. Neville Fogarty accomplished this with the clue “Org. with Magic and Wizards,” which no doubt has people pondering Hogwarts or the Ministry of Magic before realizing the answer is NBA.

Patrick Berry offered another terrific example with the clue “Time or Money,” where the capitalization is the only hint to the true answer, MAG.

Another genre of cluing that doesn’t get enough love is trivia cluing. I love learning new things, and crosswords don’t just teach you peculiarities of language like variant spellings. They also teach you the names of European rivers, organizational abbreviations, and even silent film stars.

And when a clue offers some trivia I didn’t know, that’s just a solving bonus.

Aimee Lucido is very good at keeping her trivia clues topical, and she’s previously used “127 congresspeople, as of last month” for WOMEN. In a similar vein, she taught a little bit of gender history with the clue “All the students at Dartmouth, until 1972” for MEN.

Evan Birnholz offered some musical information with the clue “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically,” slyly cluing the answer word DUET.

Paolo Pasco snuck this very peculiar nugget of information into one of his crosswords, explaining that “Coconut oil has one of 4.” This clue is almost impenetrable until you realize the answer is SPF. (Was this covered in an episode of Gilligan’s Island or Survivor or something?)

gilligans-island-bob-denver-alan-hale-jr

[Image courtesy of Collider.]

Howard Jones managed to incorporate both trivia and an act of misdirection with the clue “This might begin with E,” deftly making it hard to see the answer EYETEST.

Craig Mazan and Jeff Chan presented some movie trivia with the clue “Word cried 15 times in a row by Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry Met Sally...'” Anyone who has seen the film instantly recognizes the answer here: YES. But the thought of the constructors actually counting for this clue tickles me greatly.

As we pointed out above, multiple examples can really enhance a clue, and that counts in trivia clues as well. Peter Gordon played with capitalization with the clue “Santa Fe and Tucson, e.g.” for the answer SUV. Terrific misdirect here.

Bryan Betancur, meanwhile, drew a nice character parallel with the clue “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for the answer NEMO.

nemo

[Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.]

I know some crossword outlets aren’t fans of using clues that specifically reference each other — “With 21-Across, name of Charlie Chaplin film,” for instance — but other publishers are completely fine with this style of cluing.

And naturally, that allows constructors to have some fun making connections and using clues to reference each other.

Matt Gaffney had two clues that offered information on each other with the pairing “33-Across, in a lab” and “30-Across, on the kitchen table,” which clued NACL and SALT respectively.

Peter Gordon had a doozy of a clue in a themeless puzzle with HARRY ANGSTROM as an answer, where he tied that entry into a clue with a mathematical twist.

The clue “Film character whose last name is roughly 95 septillion times longer than 23-Across’s?” for BUZZ LIGHTYEAR is a stroke of genius. Having two characters with units of size/distance for names really works here, and the science/math nerd in me thoroughly enjoyed.

Finally, a trick I don’t see too often — but very much appreciate — is a clue that references ITSELF in order to play with the solver’s expectations.

Rebecca Falcon nailed this idea with her clue for 46-Across: “With 46-Across, comforting words.” The answer? THERE.

Gotta love it.

What are some of your favorite crossword clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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New Puzzly Mystery Series? Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady Headed to TV!

parnell-hall-puzzle-lady

Some exciting news broke recently if you’re a fan of puzzle-fueled mysteries on television.

A few days ago, it was announced that a team of production companies have acquired the rights to Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady mystery series and are looking to develop it into a new mystery drama series.

The series centers around the grumpy Cora Felton, a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle editor who prefers to spend her time investigating crimes and nosing around police investigations than worrying about grid fill or witty cluing.

And, of course, each novel includes crosswords from Will Shortz that are woven into the narrative.

Although there are a host of colorful supporting characters to fill out the cast — one that will adapt nicely to the screen, in fact — the other major player worth noting is Cora’s long-suffering niece Sherry, a clever young woman who both handles the crossword side of things and tries to keep her aunt’s detective shenanigans in line.

Most of the press releases refer to Cora as “Miss Marple on steroids.” Personally, I don’t see it, unless they’re referring to Cora’s penchant to ignore social niceties in order to solve the case. I suspect that her combination of hardheadedness, determination, and keen observation skills will make her a favorite of mystery fans.

After all, who can’t get behind a sharp-tongued older woman who tolerates no guff and happily sidesteps the authorities in order to make sure justice is done?

two more options

As for the production side of things, they’ve assembled a solid team. ZDF Enterprises, which is headlining the project, recently sold crime drama The Bridge to the BBC. (One production company involved, Canada’s December Films, is a relatively new entity.)

The other production company, North Yorkshire’s Factual Fiction, already has several successful projects to their credit, producing The Curse of Ishtar and Agatha and the Midnight Murders. (Another entry in the Agatha series, Agatha and the Truth of Murder, was produced by the founding members of Factual Fiction for Channel 5 in the UK.)

Although they have acquired the rights to all twenty books in the series, the plan right now is for a six-episode run, and members of the production staff, including top execs and screenwriter Dominique Moloney, are already in place.

There’s no word yet on casting or when production will start, but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we know more.

Naturally, this makes one wonder about the OTHER crossword mystery series we’ve come to enjoy over the last year or two: the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries’ series The Crossword Mysteries.

A fourth film is still listed as forthcoming on IMDb, but the latest updates (posted back in June, as far as I can tell) show no movement on that front.

Astonishingly, the last one (Abracadaver) aired only back in January. It feels like it was a hundred years ago in 2020 time, doesn’t it?

Well, it sounds like cruciverbalist Tess Harper and detective Logan O’Connor might soon have some stiff competition in the puzzly sleuthing market.

Are you excited about the Puzzle Lady mystery series announcement, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Who would you like to see cast in the series? And can we expect some Will Shortz cameos? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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