Representation in Crosswords: A Fresh Look

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We live in a data-driven world these days. Everything is quantified, analyzed, charted, and graphed. Your social media use alone is an absolute treasure trove of data that tells businesses all sorts of information about your activities, spending habits, and more.

So it should come as no surprise to you that the world of crosswords is no different. In recent years, we have been able to analyze decades of crosswords like never before, drawing important conclusions and uncovering trends both intriguing and shocking.

Back in 2016, the data analysis of programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were then edited by Timothy Parker. Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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This led to Parker’s removal from both the USA Today and Universal crosswords.

But the impact of data analysis in crosswords doesn’t stop there. In 2018, Erik Agard compiled stats on how often the work of female constructors appeared in the major crossword outlets across the first four months of that year. It was an eye-opening piece about gender disparity among published constructors, backed up by smart research.

And there has been a greater push for inclusion on the construction side of crosswords. Back in March, at the urging of constructor Rebecca Falcon, several outlets participated in Women’s March, a concentrated effort in the puzzle community to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

(It comes as no surprise that two of the voices encouraging female puzzle creators are Erik Agard and David Steinberg, both of whom stepped up massively in the wake of the Timothy Parker scandal and have been advocates for greater inclusiveness in crosswords.)

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[The list of all of the female constructors involved in Universal’s Women’s March project.]

This does raise the question, however, of inclusiveness when it comes to cluing and crossword entries.

And that question has been tackled quite brilliantly by Michelle McGhee in an article for The Pudding.

Striving to “better understand who is being referenced in crossword puzzles,” McGhee made a strong point about the influence crosswords have as a reflection on society:

Crosswords tell us something about what we think is worth knowing. A puzzle that subtly promotes the idea that white men are the standard, the people everyone should know about, is a problem for all of us (yes, even the white men).

A less homogenous puzzle would be an opportunity for many solvers to expand their worldviews. But more importantly, if you’re a solver like me, it’s meaningful to see yourself and your experiences in the puzzle, especially if they are often unseen or underappreciated. When I see black women engineers, or powerful athletes, or queer couples centered in a puzzle, it makes me feel seen and significant. It’s a reminder that I can be the standard, not just the deviant.

And she put the data to work to prove her point.

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Sampling tens of thousands of crosswords from Saul Pwanson’s puzzle database, she and her fellow researchers sorted people mentioned in crossword clues and used as crossword answers by race and gender according to US Census categories.

And their conclusion, sadly, was hardly unexpected:

We recognize that this is an imperfect method, but it does not change our finding: crossword puzzles are dominated by men of European descent, reserving little space for everyone else.

Not only did they chart the percentages of representation, but they also created charts illustrating the most commonly referenced people in crossword answers in the New York Times puzzle.

The goal? They wanted to quantify the concept of “common knowledge” in crosswords in the hopes of redefining it in a way that better reflects a true common knowledge, one that represents everyone.

I’m only scratching the surface of this article, which is a fascinating exploration of the history of crosswords, what they say about society, and what they COULD say about society. I encourage you wholeheartedly to read McGhee’s full piece here.

It’s the sort of journalism, commentary, and data analysis that helps push a problematic aspect of crosswords into the spotlight and keep it there. Yes, there have been great steps forward for representation in crosswords, both within the puzzles and in the realm of constructors, but we can do better. We must do better.

And work by folks like Michelle McGhee and her graph-savvy data miners is a valuable part of the process.


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A Puzzly Nom de Plume?

[Image courtesy of Writers Write.]

There was an intriguing blog post on The Wall Street Journal‘s website a few days ago about their crossword editor, Mike Shenk.

For those who don’t know, Shenk is a well-respected name in the world of puzzles who has contributed puzzles to numerous outlets, including GAMES Magazine, The New York Times, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and of course, The Wall Street Journal.

The blog post revealed that Shenk had published puzzles in the WSJ under pseudonyms in the past, but going forward, that would no longer be the case. In the spirit of transparency, any puzzles constructed by Shenk would appear under his real name.

Greater transparency in crossword publishing is definitely a good thing. If you recall, part of the issue with Timothy Parker’s tenure for the Universal Crossword involved other constructors’ puzzles being reprinted under Parker’s pseudonyms instead of the actual constructor’s name. Ben Tausig found one example, and further investigation turned up others.

From a FiveThirtyEight article discussing the story:

The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier. Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited. Most of those have been republished under fake author names.

Obviously, no such accusations mar Shenk’s tenure at The Wall Street Journal. His reputation is pristine.

[Image courtesy of Politico.]

But it made me wonder. Last year, we discussed how many women were being published in various crossword outlets. From January 1st to April 29th of 2018, nine out of the 99 puzzles published by The Wall Street Journal were constructed by women. Were some of those actually Shenk under a pseudonym? (One of the noms de plume mentioned in the WSJ blog post was Alice Long.)

Naturally, this whole topic got me thinking about pseudonyms in general. In British crosswords, most constructors (or setters, as they’re called in the UK) publish under a pseudonym. Among loyal solvers, names like Araucaria, Qaos, Paul, Enigmatist, Shed, and Crucible are as familiar there as C.C. Burnikel, Jeff Chen, Brendan Emmett Quigley, or Patrick Berry would be here.

How common are pseudonyms in American-style crosswords, do you suppose? Has usage of aliases increased or decreased over the years? I might have to follow up on that in the future.

In the meantime, it’s intriguing to see one of the most respected crossword outlets in the market today, The Wall Street Journal, take a stand on visibility and transparency in puzzle publishing. Maybe it’s the start of something bigger.


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PN Trivia Scavenger Hunt: Answers & Winner!

[Image courtesy of Alaris Health.]

Thank you to everyone who entered our anniversary trivia scavenger hunt! Plenty of solvers, puzzlers, and PuzzleNationers tried their hand at answering all five questions before the deadline at midnight on Wednesday, and many succeeded!

Alas, there can be only one winner. But before we get to that, let’s look at the answers, shall we?


PuzzleNation Anniversary Trivia Scavenger Hunt

1.) One of my favorite recurring features is Puzzles in Pop Culture, where I explore puzzly moments in television, film, and literature. We’ve discussed Sherlock, Hell’s Kitchen, and even Gilmore Girls in installments of Puzzles in Pop Culture.

Question: How do you solve the four gallons of water puzzle?

Answer: There were actually two answers featured in the August 19, 2014 post “Puzzles in Pop Culture: Die Hard with a Vengeance” referenced in this question. Here’s the answer our winner submitted:

1. Fill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug.
2. Refill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug until the 5-gallon jug is full, leaving 1 gallon in the 3-gallon jug.
3. Empty the 5-gallon jug and pour the 1 gallon of water from the 3-gallon jug into the 5-gallon jug.
4. Fill the 3-gallon jug again and empty it into the 5-gallon jug, leaving exactly 4 gallons in the 5-gallon jug.


2.) You can’t talk about puzzles without also discussing games, because there’s so much overlap between the two. Game reviews from a puzzle solver’s perspective have become a part of the fabric of PuzzleNation Blog, as has creating your own puzzles and games from scratch.

Question: What’s the name of the DIY game that only requires a bunch of identical blank pieces of paper (like index cards) and something to write with?

Answer: Discussed in our September 15, 2015 post “DIY Pencil and Paper Puzzles,” this game is known as 1000 Blank White Cards.


3.) Naturally, if you’re going to talk puzzles, Sudoku is going to be part of the conversation sooner rather than later. We’ve not only explored the history of Sudoku here, but we’ve been a part of it, debuting brand-new Sudoku variants created by topnotch constructors.

Question: What do you call two overlapping Samurai Sudoku?

Answer: We posted many different Sudoku variants in our December 4, 2014 post “The Wide World of Sudoku,” but the puzzle in question is known as Shogun Sudoku.


4.) A fair amount of puzzle history, both past and present, has been covered here over the last five years. We’ve examined cryptography in the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, and beyond. We’ve celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the crossword. And we’ve even discussed scandals in the puzzle world.

Question: What are the names of the programmer and crossword constructor who first uncovered the curious pattern of puzzle repetition in USA Today and Universal Uclick puzzles that eventually led to the ouster of Timothy Parker?

Answer: As discussed in a series of posts entitled “Puzzle Plagiarism,” the programmer’s name is Saul Pwanson and the constructor’s name is Ben Tausig.


5.) In the Internet age, memes and fads appear and disappear faster than ever. A picture or a joke or a news story can sweep the world in a matter of hours, and then vanish forever. On a few occasions, the Internet has become obsessed with certain optical illusions, and we’ve done our best to analyze them from a puzzler’s perspective.

Question: The creators of The Dress appeared on what talk show to put the mystery to bed once and for all?

Answer: Discussed on March 6, 2015 in a Follow-Up Friday post, the mystery of The Dress was laid to rest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.


[Image courtesy of ClipArt Panda.]

And now, without any further ado, we’d like to congratulate our winner, who shall remain nameless. After all, like a lottery winner, she doesn’t want to be mobbed by those hoping for a piece of the action. =)

She’ll be receiving her choice of either a Penny Dell Crosswords App puzzle set download OR a copy of one of the puzzle games we’ve reviewed this year!

Thank again to everyone for playing and for celebrating five years of PuzzleNation Blog with us. We truly could not have done it without you!


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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

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This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

crossword-finals-shady

The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

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The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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Puzzles for Progress!

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[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, there’s no doubt that we’re living in uncertain times. And in uncertain times, people come together in the spirit of cooperation. They reach out to one another, and remind them they’re not alone.

I’m proud to say that the puzzle community is no different. I’ve detailed several wonderful charitable programs in the past spearheaded by puzzlers, and today, it’s my pleasure and my privilege to bring another to your attention, my fellow PuzzleNationers.

Constructor Francis Heaney has assembled a who’s who of top constructors for a project called Puzzles for Progress. And, like all great ideas, it’s very simple.

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Once you’ve donated to one of the worthy causes detailed here — including the ACLU, the NAACP, The Trevor Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and others — you can send a copy of your charitable receipt to puzzlesforprogress@gmail.com.

And in return, you’ll receive a PDF loaded with 20 pages of original puzzles by great constructors like Erik Agard, Patrick Berry, Patrick Blindauer, Emily Cox & Henry Rathvon, Amy Goldstein, Joon Pahk, and more.

It’s a little extra incentive to do a bit of good in the world, and I applaud everyone involved in this venture.

[You can click here for full details on Puzzles for Progress.]


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: 2016 Countdown edition!

It’s the final Follow-Up Friday of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2016 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Doomsday Prep

One of the big surprises for me this year was discovering that crosswords and puzzle books were hot-ticket items for doomsday preppers. The idea that crosswords belong next to necessities like food, water, shelter, and knowledge was a revealing one, something that gave me great hope for the future, whether we need those caches or not.

#9 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#8 A Puzzly Proposal

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles once again pulled off a heck of a puzzly coup when an intrepid fellow puzzler asked them for help proposing to his girlfriend with a special Simon Says puzzle.

I reached out to the lucky fiancé and got his permission to share the story with the PuzzleNation readership, and as I learned more about who was involved and how they’d managed to make it happen, I enjoyed the story more and more. Here’s hoping for many happy puzzly years ahead for the young couple!

#7 Puzzle Fort

For International Puzzle Day, I built a fort out of puzzle books.

It was awesome. Definitely one of my favorite puzzly moments of the year.

#6 The End of Sudoku?

The Sudoku boom may be over, but Sudoku remains one of the most popular puzzles in the world, and I got to thinking… when would we run out? I mean, eventually, statistically speaking, every single Sudoku puzzle permutation would get used at some point, so when would that happen?

So, I crunched the numbers, and it turns out, we’ve got centuries before that happens. Still, it was a fun mental puzzle to unravel.

#5 Murder Mystery

At some point this year, I let slip to my fellow puzzlers that I’d written and staged murder mystery dinners in the past, but it had been a while since I’d done anything like that. Naturally, they volunteered to be participants, urging me to stage something in the office.

Eventually, I accepted their challenge, pitting myself against a half-dozen or so of my fellow puzzlers, allowing some of them to investigate while others played a part in the mystery. It was an enormous undertaking and an absolute blast that lasted three days, and it was definitely a highlight of the year for me.

#4 Puzzle Plagiarism

There was probably no bigger story in crosswords all year than the accusations of plagiarism leveled against Timothy Parker. The editor of puzzles for USA Today and Universal UClick. After numerous examples of very suspicious repetitions between grids were discovered in a crossword database compiled by programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig, Parker “temporarily stepped back from any editorial role” with their puzzles.

Eventually, Parker was removed from any editorial influence on USA Today’s puzzles, but it remains unknown if he’s still serving in a puzzle-related capacity for Universal Uclick. But the real story here was about integrity in puzzles, as many puzzle and game companies rallied to defend their rights as creators. That’s a cause we can all get behind.

#3 Interviewing the PuzzleNation Team

Our recurring interview feature 5 Questions returned this year, but what made it truly special to me was being able to turn the spotlight on some of my fellow puzzlers here at PuzzleNation as part of celebrating 4 years of PuzzleNation Blog. Introducing readers to our programmer Mike, our Director of Digital Games Fred, and yes, even myself, was a really fun way to celebrate this milestone.

#2 ACPT, CT FIG, and Other Puzzly Events

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting local creators at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#1 Penny Dell Sudoku and Android Expansion

Those were our two biggest app releases this year, and I just couldn’t choose one over the other. This has been a terrific year for us as puzzle creators, because not only did we beef up our library of Android-available puzzle sets to match our terrific iOS library, but we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app across both platforms, broadening the scope of what sort of puzzle apps you can expect from PuzzleNation.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

Thanks for spending 2016 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2017.


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