Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

Last summer, I wrote a blog post discussing an article on Slate by Ruth Graham. The article was entitled “Why Is the New York Times Crossword So Clueless About Race and Gender?”

So, what sort of progress has been made over the previous 365 days? Clearly not enough, given the title of an article published last week on The Outline, entitled “The NYT Crossword is Old and Kind of Racist.”

Adrianne Jeffries makes a strong case for how out-of-touch the crossword often seems these days:

…the Times crosswords, which have been edited by the famed crossword giant Will Shortz since 1993, are vexing for how outdated some of the clues and answers are, especially since in some cases the terms have been abandoned by the paper itself. The puzzle clearly isn’t seeking new talent or a new audience, and in its stodginess, it becomes clear that it is composed for a very particular reader with a very particular view of the world.

[Image courtesy of New York Magazine.]

She backs up her supposition with numerous examples of tone-deaf cluing and grid fill, like ESKIMO, Oriental, and SISSIES.

There is some overlap with Ruth Graham’s points from last year — including the reductive use of HOMIE regarding black culture and the clue “One caught by the border patrol” for ILLEGAL — and Jeffries went on to include examples of the issue I raised last year with the objectionable “This, to Juan” cluing style that abounds in crosswords.

But she takes things one step further than previous efforts by pointing out how the crossword is out-of-step with the rest of the New York Times newspaper, citing the year that various terms were marked offensive in the Times style guide. (“Oriental” as a descriptor, for instance, was banned in 1999.)

[This is oriental. People are not. Image courtesy of Rashid Oriental Rugs.]

It’s disheartening that articles like this are so necessary. Women and people of color deserve better representation in the Times puzzles, both as contributors of puzzles AND as subjects of clues and entries themselves.

Jeffries offered another damning example of dubious Shortzian editing:

I also found an exchange from 2011 illuminating. Shortz asked puzzle constructor Elizabeth Gorski to change an answer on her submitted puzzle. “There was one thing about the construction I didn’t like, and that was at 35 Down,” Shortz told The Atlantic. “The answer was LORELAI, and the sirens on the Rhine are of course ‘Lorelei,’ with an ‘e-i.’ Liz’s clue was Rory’s mom on Gilmore Girls, and I didn’t think solvers should have to know that.” He had the constructor revise the answer to make it 1) more old and 2) refer to mythical women who are so distractingly beautiful that they cause men to crash their ships on the rocks, instead of, a cool mom from a television show that millions of women (and some men) love.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Even as a (relatively) younger voice in puzzles, I can’t deny many of her points. Puzzles should do a better job of acknowledging modern culture, of serving as a tiny, daily time capsule of our world.

As I said last year, crosswords are a cultural microcosm, representing the commonalities and peculiarities of our language in a given time and place. They represent our trivia, our understanding, our cleverness, our humor, and, yes, sometimes our shortcomings.

One year later, I wonder if progress will continue to feel so gradual, or if, sometime soon, we’ll begin to feel the cultural quakes and shifts that indicate real change is approaching.


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New puzzle sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords App!

Oh yes, it’s that time again! We’ve got the sweet and lowdown on the latest puzzle set for the Penny Dell Crosswords App for you right here!

We’re excited to announce that the June Deluxe puzzle set is now available! A fantastic fit for Father’s Day!

Offering 30 easy, medium, and hard puzzles, plus 5 June-themed bonus puzzles to delight solvers of all skill levels, the June Deluxe set is just what the doctor ordered to scratch that puzzly itch!

But that’s not all!

That’s right, you can double down on puzzle goodness with the June Deluxe Combo! That’s 70 puzzles, including June-themed bonus puzzles for your puzzly pleasure!

But maybe you need more! If you want a great deal on PuzzleNation-quality crosswords, we’ve got you covered with the June Deluxe Bundle! That’s 105 puzzles, three times the terrific content and crafty cluing of a traditional June Deluxe set, loaded and ready for you to solve!

It’s available for iOS solvers right now, and it will be available for Android users in the next few hours!

Check out Pop’s puzzle chops with these terrific puzzles! Treat yourself (or your dad) to these fantastic puzzle sets!

And happy puzzling!


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The Diabolical Long Division Brain Teaser!

From time to time, I’ll receive an email with a brain teaser I’ve never seen before. Sometimes they come from friends, or fellow puzzlers. Other times, PuzzleNationers will ask for my assistance in solving a puzzle that has flummoxed them.

That was the case with today’s puzzle, and I’ll admit, this one was a bit of a doozy to unravel.

Yup, an entire long division problem with only a single digit set. No letters or encryption to let us know which digits were repeated, as there are in Word Math puzzles published by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles.

Just a 7 and a bunch of asterisks. “Is this doable?” the sender asked.

Yes, this is entirely doable, friend. Let’s break it down step by step.

First, we need to know our terminology. The 8-digit number being divided is our dividend. The 3-digit number we’re dividing into it is the divisor. The 5-digit number on top is our quotient.

For the other lines, let’s label them A through G for ease of reference later.

There we go. Now, where do we go from here? We start with what we know.

We know that 7 is the second digit in our quotient.

So our divisor, times 7, equals the number on line C. That’s a 3-digit number, which means the first number in our divisor is 1. Why? Because if it was 2, 2 times 7 would give us 14, which would be a 4-digit number on that line.

That means the quotient is somewhere between 100 and 142. (Why 142? Easy. I divided 1000 by 7, and 142 is the last 3-digit number you can multiply 7 against and still end up with a 3-digit answer for line C. 143 times 7 is 1001, which is too high.)

What else do we know from the puzzle as it stands?

Well, look at lines E and F. We bring both of the last two digits in the dividend down for the final part of the equation. What does that mean?

Remember how long division works. You multiply the divisor by whatever number gets you closest to the given digits of the dividend, subtract the remainder, bring down the next digit from the dividend, and do it all over again until you get your answer.

You multiply the first digit of the quotient times the divisor to get the number on line A. You multiply 7 times the divisor to get the number on line C. You multiply the third digit of the quotient times the divisor to get the number on line E.

Following this route, you would multiply the fourth digit of the quotient against the divisor to get the number on line G. But bringing just one digit down didn’t give us a number high enough to be divided into. Instead of needing more lines (H and I, in this case), we bring the last digit of the dividend down and press onward.

That means the fourth digit of the quotient is 0, because the divisor went into the dividend zero times at that point.

And there’s more we can glean just from the asterisks and what we already know. We know that every one of those 4-digit numbers in the equation begin with the number 1.

How do we know that? Easy. That first number in the divisor. With a 1 there, even if the divisor is 199 and we multiply it times 9, the highest possible answer for any of those 4-digit numbers is 1791.

So let’s fill those numbers in as well:

Now look at lines D, E, and F. There’s nothing below the 1 on line D. The only way that can happen is if the second digit in line D is smaller than the first digit on line E. And on line F, you can see that those first two columns in lines D and E equal zero, since there’s nothing on line F until we hit that third column of digits.

That means the second digit on line D is either a 0 or a 1, and the first digit on line E is a 9. It’s the only way to end up with a blank space there on line F.

I realize there are a lot of asterisks left, but we’re actually very close to knowing our entire quotient by now.

Look at what we know. 7 times the divisor gives us a 3-digit answer on line C. We don’t yet know if that’s the same 3-digit answer on line E, but since it’s being divided into a 4-digit number on line E and only a 3-digit number on line C, that means the third digit in our quotient is either equal to or greater than 7. So, it’s 7 or 8.

Why not 9? Because of the 4-digit answers on lines A and G. Those would have to be higher than the multiplier for lines C and E because they result in 4-digit answers, not 3. So the digit in the first and fifth places in the quotient are higher than the digit in the third. So, if the third digit in the quotient is 7 or 8, the first and fifth are either 8 or 9.

So how do we know whether 7 or 8 is the third digit in the quotient?

Well, if it’s 7, then lines C and E would have the same 3-digit answer, both beginning with 9. But line C cannot have an answer beginning with 9, because line B is also 3 digits. The highest value the first digit in line B could have is 9, and 9 minus 9 is zero. But the number on line D begins with 1, ruling out the idea that the numbers on lines C and E are the same.

That makes the third digit in the quotient 8, and the first and fifth digits in the quotient 9.

We know our quotient now, 97809. What about our divisor?

Well, remember before when we narrowed it down to somewhere between 100 and 142? That’s going to come in handy now.

On line F, we know those first two digits are going to be 141 or below, because whatever our divisor is, it was larger than those three digits. That’s how we ended up with a 0 in our quotient.

So, the number on line D minus the number on line E equals 14 or below. So we need a 900-something number that, when added to a number that’s 14 or below, equals 1000 or more. That gives us a field from 986 to 999.

And that number between 986 and 999 has to be divisible by 8 for our quotient to work. And the only number in that field that fits the bill is 992. 992 divided by 8 gives us 124, which is our divisor.

From that point on, we can fill out the rest of the equation, including our lengthy dividend, 12128316.

And there you have it. With some math skills, some deduction, and some crafty puzzling, we’ve slain yet another brain teaser. Nice work everyone!

[After solving the puzzle, I did a little research, and apparently this one has been making the rounds after being featured in FiveThirtyEight’s recurring Riddler feature, so here’s a link.]


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Rise of the Machines!

I don’t mean to alarm you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, but the machines may be taking over.

First, there was Deep Blue, defeating Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov under standard chess tournament time constraints.

Then, there was IBM’s supercomputer Watson, sitting at the buzzer on Jeopardy!, besting previous champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings to nab a million-dollar prize.

An AI program called Deep Mind can play several Atari games with superhuman proficiency.

These days, you can design robots with LEGOs that are capable of solving Rubik’s Cubes in seconds flat.

And, of course, crossword fans probably know of Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving computer program that competes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament each year. In a matter of five years, it has jumped from 141st place in the 2012 tournament to 11th place in the 2017 tournament.

Now, the machines are coming for Go players next. Google has developed an artificial intelligence known as AlphaGo which twice conquered Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Go tournament champion ranked number one in the world.

This strategy board game is played with white and black gamepieces called stones, and the objective is to surround a greater total amount of territory on the game board than your opponent. Along the way, you can surround your opponent’s pieces in order to capture them and remove them from play.

Wikipedia aptly describes the depth and difficulty of the game:

Despite its relatively simple rules, Go is very complex, even more so than chess, and possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe. Compared to chess, Go has both a larger board with more scope for play and longer games, and, on average, many more alternatives to consider per move.

People have been playing Go for over 2,500 years, and yet, machines have already surpassed our greatest player.

Science fiction movies have been warning us about this for years. I just never expected them to come after our games and hobbies first.


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns tomorrow!

That’s right! Tomorrow, June 3rd, will mark the third annual edition of the tournament, and although registration is closed (because the event is full!), you can still participate from home for only $10! Click here for details!

Not only that, but once again they’ve whipped up a meta-suite of puzzles to boot, and you name your own price for it!

I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled: Tracy Bennett, Erik Agard, Angela Olson Halsted, Andy Kravis, Paolo Pasco, Allegra Kuney, and Neville Fogarty. With a curious time-centric theme, topnotch constructors, and pie (there’s always pie), you can’t go wrong!

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing? Or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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Crossword History: Dawe and D-Day

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

June 6, 1944 is a date that will continue to resonate for decades to come, and perhaps centuries. On that day, D-Day, the largest amphibious military attack in history was launched as the Allied forces landed at Normandy. This was one of the major offensives that helped bring about the end of World War II.

But a few days before that, a curious confluence of events brought crosswords to the attention to British agents, namely those of MI5.

Yes, tomorrow, June 2, 1944, marks the anniversary of the day a physics teacher and crossword constructor named Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

More specifically, the words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So, the authorities had to investigate the highly improbable, yet still possible, scenario that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and scooped up the constructor to investigate.

In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words (possibly mentioned by the loose lips of soldiers stationed nearby) and slipped them into his grids unwittingly, or this is simply an incredible coincidence.

Some crossword fans suspect that there’s more to the story, though.

According to The Guardian newspaper:

During the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of D-day, one of Dawe’s former pupils approached the Telegraph and insisted that as a lad, he had overheard US and Canadian soldiers discussing the plans, picked up on the codewords, and suggested them to his headmaster as possible entries.

This has been dismissed by most historians as an attempt to rewrite or embellish an already baffling story.

Nonetheless, it’s possible that, somewhere, some document connecting Mr. Dawes and the codewords is waiting to be discovered.

Until then, it simply remains a curious moment in crossword history.


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