PuzzleNation Looks Back at 2016!

The year is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m unbelievably proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met designers, constructors, authors, artists who work in LEGOs and dominos, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and used statistics to play Hangman and Guess Who smarter. We accepted the challenge of diabolical puzzles, optical illusions, Internet memes, and more.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about Bletchley Park, puzzle graffiti from ancient Greece, Viking board games, and modern mysteries like the Kryptos Sculpture and the Voynich Manuscript. We separated fact from fiction when it comes to puzzles and brain health, avoiding highfalutin promises and sticking to solid science.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared amazing projects and worthy causes like Humble Bundles and puzzle/game donation programs for schools that allowed puzzle lovers to help others.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, built a puzzle fort in honor of International Puzzle Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games, and dove deep into puzzle events like the Indie 500, the UK Sudoku Championship, the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship, and Lollapuzzoola. We even celebrated a puzzly wedding proposal, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked four years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m approaching my 650th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2016 went well beyond that.

In April, we launched Penny Dell Crosswords Jumbo 3 for iOS users, and in May, we followed that with Penny Dell Crosswords Jumbo for Android. In November, we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app on both Android and iOS.

But the standout showpiece of our puzzle app library remains the Penny Dell Crossword App. Every month, we release puzzle sets like our Dell Collection sets or the themed Deluxe sets for both Android and iOS users, and I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

We even revamped our ongoing Crossword Clue Challenge to feature a clue from each day’s Free Daily Puzzle in the Crossword app, all to ensure that more puzzle lovers than ever have access to the best mobile crossword app on the market today.

And your response has been fantastic! The blog is closing in on 2000 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2016 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. Have a marvelous New Year. We’ll see you in 2017!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Bogus Brain Health edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of brain health and puzzles.

The physicist Emerson Pugh once said that “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

We’re still working hard to unravel the mysteries of how we learn, how we store information, and how puzzle-solving affects the brain in the short term and in the long term. There have been many MANY studies published touting all sorts of results, both positive and negative. And there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim everything from improved memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

As a puzzle guy, I wholeheartedly believe that puzzle-solving has its benefits, and I’m always on the lookout for any new data on the subject to share with you, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

As far back as 2013, I was digging through every brain health article I could find, trying to find something substantial about the role of puzzles in brain health. I was hoping for a solid yea or nay, but the scientific community inevitably served up a resounding “maybe?”

Heck, as recently as this past September, I mentioned the conflicting data out there regarding brain health and puzzle-based programs like those on the Lumosity website.

And a recent article on Gizmodo may have put the final nail in the coffin when it comes to all of these lofty brain-health promises.

Citing a paper from Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the article discusses a recent attempt to comb through the numerous previous studies and test them under more rigorous scientific conditions.

The end result? From the Gizmodo article:

“Based on our extensive review of the literature cited by brain-training companies in support of their claims, coupled with our review of related brain-training literatures that are not currently associated with a company or product, there does not yet appear to be sufficient evidence to justify the claim that brain training is an effective tool for enhancing real-world cognition,” conclude the authors in the study.

Not surprisingly, brain-training can improve performance on the particular task or puzzle that’s being trained for. But there was very little evidence to show that these brain-games extend beyond that. These programs simply don’t improve everyday cognitive performance.

While I doubt this will be the last we’ve heard of puzzles as the be-all end-all cure for brain health, it’s good to know that dedicated minds are hard at work exposing the snake oil amidst the real science.


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These brain teasers are the cat’s meow.

[Image courtesy of Psychlinks.ca.]

It’s difficult to write about the potential health benefits of puzzles. Believe me, I’ve tried.

But many scientific articles, research studies, and other professional analyses disagree on the short-term or long-term benefits that puzzles have on the brain. There’s a wealth of material out there on brain health and the impact of puzzles, but much of it is inconclusive.

I’ve always tried to be careful to discuss any scientific articles on brain health for that reason, especially after Lumosity’s two-million-dollar payout earlier this year for falsely advertising that their puzzle games could “reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions,” as well as “stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”

That’s less of an issue, thankfully, when writing about other puzzle-solving creatures, though. In the past, we’ve seen crafty cockatoos, clever crows, outwitting octopuses, and deductive dogs. Apparently, we can also add cats to the list of fellow puzzlers!

[A mobile feeder toy. Image courtesy of Purina One.]

A recent article in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery reports that their findings indicate that a healthy dose of puzzle-solving at mealtime is beneficial to a kitty’s welfare.

According to the folks at Gizmodo, by utilizing food puzzles that require cats to roll a toy to release some food or manipulate a game board to reveal food, “these puzzles take advantage of the feline hunting instinct, fulfilling their ingrained desires. By ‘foraging’ for food in this way, cats are more physically active, they experience reduced levels of stress, and they become less demanding of their owners.”

Apparently, it’s all about engaging the cats, giving them something to work against in order to earn the food. The case studies cited by the report include behavioral issues and obesity that were overcome thanks to the use of food puzzles.

[A stationary puzzle feeder. Image courtesy of CatFoodDispensersReviews.com.]

I already knew that cats were skilled at treasure and scavenger hunts — based on the absolutely ludicrous places I would find the toys my sister’s cats left behind, often weeks after their visits — but I had no idea they belonged among the elite puzzle-solving animals we’ve previously chronicled here.

Makes sense, though. I solve puzzles for snacks sometimes. *shrugs* It’s a living.


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The Value of Recreational Math

There was a wonderful opinion piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago about the importance of recreational math.

Now, as author Manil Suri said, I’m sure that to some people, the idea of recreational math sounds like an oxymoron. But it’s everywhere! From poker players calculating their odds based on the cards dealt to the number crunching in role-playing games in order to complete certain tasks (or develop a character’s skills), math is built into many recreational activities.

It’s certainly a part of many kinds of puzzles, including brain teasers. Heck, previous brain teasers featured here in the blog like Mystery Number, the Birthday Puzzle, and the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance would all easily fall under the umbrella of recreational math.

The article goes on to mention the wonderful work of Martin Gardner, whose column “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American was a mainstay of recreational math and puzzly whimsy for over twenty-five years.

From Suri’s article:

In his final article for Scientific American, in 1998, Mr. Gardner lamented the “glacial” progress resulting from his efforts to have recreational math introduced into school curriculums “as a way to interest young students in the wonders of mathematics.”

Indeed, a paper this year in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics points out that recreational math can be used to awaken mathematics-related “joy,” “satisfaction,” “excitement” and “curiosity” in students, which the educational policies of several countries (including China, India, Finland, Sweden, England, Singapore and Japan) call for in writing.

In contrast, the Common Core in the United States does not explicitly mention this emotional side of the subject, regarding mathematics only as a tool.

This is an excellent counterpoint to the regular argument that the primary value of puzzle-solving and other activities (like recreational math) is to stave off brain health issues later in life.

In a previous post, we discussed the inconsistent reports about the effects of puzzle-solving on the brain, leaving it unclear if regular doses of puzzles and recreational math are beneficial for other aspects of brain health over time, like memory retention, neuroplasticity, and concentration.

That may well be the case, but Suri’s point stands. The idea of instilling a sense of fun and wonder into the field of math, especially for younger minds? That’s one worth pursuing.

Show them that math can be about more than fulfilling homework or graphing parabola. Show them that mathematical concepts can help you crack a diabolical seesaw brain teaser, save a village with a grain of rice, or find an alternate solution to a PSAT question and prove the testers wrong.

It has been championed in the past by television shows like Square One TV and MythBusters, but sadly, examples like that are few and far between.

And if we can instill recreational math as a key facet of math itself, then we’d be one step closer to ensuring that STEM courses will have plenty of participants in the future.


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Crossing swords with crosswordese!

In the past, I’ve written about crosswordese, nemesis and irritant to many crossword solvers and constructors. For the uninitiated, crosswordese is shorthand for any and all obscure or curious words that you only encounter in crossword grids. From EPEE and OONA to Greek letters (ETA, RHO) and French rivers (AARE), these killer crossings are the bane of any solver’s existence.

And wouldn’t you know it, I encountered some crosswordese in a most unexpected place.

I was reading Patricia Marx’s book Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties, a humorous look at the common fear that our mental acuity declines as we get older. In the book, Marx references numerous ways she’s noted her brain working less efficiently than it used to, and she hilariously chronicles her attempts to combat this and keep her wits sharp.

As part of her ongoing efforts, she even created a crossword grid utilizing only tough crossword entries.

Her puzzle featured some truly great, funny clues, like “The side of the ship you want to be on if you don’t want your hair to get messed up” for ALEE and “No matter how bad your memory is, this is something to remember” for ALAMO.

While I wouldn’t count every entry in her grid as crosswordese, there were plenty of major offenders on her list. (You can check out the full puzzle in her book!)

And this gave me an idea. I would try my hand at creating my own 9×9 grid, composed entirely of crosswordese, utilizing some of the words from her list and some from lists submitted by fellow puzzlers.

[Forgive my nonstandard grid. I tried to go for the same homemade charm as Marx’s grid. Feel free to print out this post and try it out!]

ACROSS

1. Toward shelter, to salty types
3. Arrow poison OR how a child might describe their belly button in writing
5. Flightless bird OR Zeus’s mother
6. Hireling or slave
8. “Kentucky Jones” actor OR response akin to “Duh”
9. Compass dir. OR inhabitant’s suffix
12. Wide-shoe width OR sound of an excited squeal
15. No longer working, for short OR soak flax or hemp
16. Like a feeble old woman OR anagram of a UFO pilot
17. Actress Balin OR Pig ____ poke

DOWN

1. Mean alternate spelling for an eagle’s nest
2. Old-timey exclamation
3. Unnecessarily obscure French river or part of the Rhone-Alpes region
4. Supplement OR misspelling of a popular cat from a FOX Saturday morning cartoon
7. Maui goose
10. An abbreviated adjective covering school K through 12 OR how you might greet a Chicago railway
11. My least favorite example of crosswordese OR good and mad
12. Ornamental needlecase
13. Movie feline OR “Frozen” character
14. Shooting marble OR abbreviation for this missing phrase: “truth, justice, and ____”

Did you conquer this crosswordese-riddled grid? And what’s your least favorite example of crosswordese? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

Puzzles and Brain Health

There is a lot of talk nowadays about brain boosting and other attempts to combat the effects of aging on the brain. There are numerous websites and products boasting that they can help keep your wits sharp, your memory keen, and the threat of Alzheimer’s at bay.

From visual acuity and perception to coordination, critical thinking to spatial reasoning, from observational skill to improved memory, there are a lot of promises being made about brain health.

Unfortunately, there’s a wealth of conflicting and inconsistent data out there. (This article by The New York Times points out some of the inconsistencies in brain health reporting when it comes to puzzles.)

From a recent NPR article:

Molly Wagster, chief of the behavioral and systems neuroscience branch at the National Institute on Aging, studies how puzzles can benefit brains. “What we know is that it probably makes us better at puzzle solving, but it may not necessarily make us better at other types of cognitive activities,” Wagster explains.

However, in general, experts agree that puzzle solving is good for us. But what puzzles do the most good, and when should you start solving?

I’ve done my best to comb through the available data — both through reports from news sources and scientific papers themselves — and there’s one thing that they all seem to agree on…

Start puzzling when you’re young.

A study by the University of Chicago said that children who play with jigsaws and other shape-based puzzles at a young age tend to develop better spatial and math-related skills.

And there are other studies that support the idea that a fundamental base of puzzling at a young age contributes to better brain health later in life.

A study at Berkeley published in the Archives of Neurology (and covered by CBS News) found a correlation between crossword puzzle solving (and other challenging mind games) and a decreased likelihood to develop a particular marker for Alzheimer’s disease.

This study also said that when you engage in these activities is a factor. Like the University of Chicago study, the Berkeley study states that adults who engaged in crosswords and similarly brain-stimulating activities in their early and middle years had the lowest amount of these markers.

There is plenty of data to suggest that crosswords and other associative puzzles can have unexpected brain health benefits.

My friend Jake had major brain surgery years ago, and part of his post-surgery recovery consisted of solving crosswords. It was considered excellent speech/occupational therapy, and he sought out more crosswords post-recovery.

(This article from The New York Times discusses in detail another example of the curious relationship between crosswords, memory, and post-surgery treatment.)

But what about those who’ve come to puzzles later in life? Are all the promises made by those websites and brain-boosting products possible?

It depends on the puzzle. There are plenty of puzzles that are great at exercising various brain functions and observational skill, but there’s precious little scientific data to back up whether these games and puzzles actually help with memory retention or other faculties challenged by age.

But a recent article by Dr. Rob Winningham suggests that certain types of puzzle solving are more beneficial than others.

Crossword puzzles involve getting a cue and then attempting to retrieve previously learned information, which is something that people with age related cognitive impairment and even early to mid stage dementia can do fairly well.

Age related changes in cognition and earlier stages of dementia are primarily associated with impairments in the ability to concentrate, pay attention, and make new memories; crossword puzzles don’t really exercise those abilities, but Sudoku puzzles do.

According to Dr. Winningham, the heavy demand Sudoku puzzles place on concentration and active attention-keeping — especially when solved with distractions like television or conversation in the mix — exercise those parts of the brain associated with the formation of new memories, encouraging better memory retention and other mental faculties so many solvers of all ages want to keep in top condition.

While there’s still more research to be done to narrow down exactly what puzzles are best for your brain in the long term, there’s no denying that puzzle solving is always a healthy decision.

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