Puzzles in Pop Culture: Ten-Letter Word for “Fundamental”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes have myriad adaptations, some with a cast of mice, some medical dramas, some featuring aliens and government conspiracies. Still others hew closer to the original nineteenth-century stories, whether in the form of a period piece, like the films starring Robert Downey Jr., or a modernization, like BBC’s Sherlock. My favorite of this genre is the undersung CBS police procedural/drama Elementary, which ran from 2012 to 2019. Starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, Elementary is set in modern-day New York, with Sherlock acting as a pro-bono consultant to the NYPD (he describes himself as a specialist in “deductive reasoning”). While former surgeon Joan Watson eventually becomes Sherlock’s partner in crime-solving, initially, her role is to be his sober companion.

Elementary stays faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s depiction of his protagonist as a drug user, opening with Sherlock escaping early from rehab, only to find Joan waiting for him, as she was hired by his father to help him stay sober. His struggles with addiction, time in 12-step meetings, and relationships with other addicts remain mainstays of the series throughout all seven seasons. The work that Sherlock performs, using his deductive reasoning skills for the police, is considered by both him and Joan to be an integral part of his recovery process. Crime-solving keeps his mind busy, giving him constant puzzles to solve.

At its heart, this is a show about solving puzzles. Sherlock’s job is putting together murder motives and methods; his hobbies are picking locks and stockpiling trivia. He gazes at the world as though it is one big jigsaw puzzle and everything needs to be placed just so to make sense. All the pieces are there; you just need to know how to look at them correctly. One episode even hinges on a love of crosswords.

Season one, episode eight, “The Long Fuse,” depicts a bomb going off in the vent of a web design firm’s office. When Sherlock and Joan are called to consult, they discover that the bomb was built four years prior to detonation. The episode is set in 2012, but the logo on the bomb’s battery is from October 2008, as are the newspaper pieces that were stuffed inside. Pieced together, the newspaper shows a Barack Obama who was still only a senator. The man who detonated the bomb did so by mistake: intending to order a sandwich, he called the detonating pager instead of the deli.

Meanwhile, the specter of Sherlock’s addiction reappears. He goes to investigate the company that rented the bombed office four years prior, rifling through the threatening letters they’ve received from ecoterrorists. The company’s head, Heather Vanowen—played by House’s Lisa Edelstein—walks in on Sherlock’s research and says that she recognizes him as a fellow addict. The moment is tense, until she clarifies, “Crosswords.” She used to have her habit under control, but ever since The New York Times put their archives online, she can’t get enough.

This confession is her undoing. Sherlock didn’t just discover the October 2008 date on the newspaper; he also found the imprints of someone writing on a page above—the word NOVOCAINE, which happened to be the answer to the clue “Pain’s enemy” in that day’s crossword. NOVOCAINE serves as a sufficient sample of the perpetrator’s handwriting; all it takes is asking Heather to fill out a few forms, and presto! Her handwriting can be matched to the crossword, clearly identifying her as the bomb’s builder.

The episode comes to an end with Sherlock’s new 12-step sponsor, Alfredo (Ato Essandoh) pulling up to Sherlock and Joan’s brownstone with a shiny new car. A former carjacker and current security consultant, he’s been tasked with trying to break into the car’s security system. Knowing Sherlock’s love of puzzles, he figured he would first let Sherlock take a crack at it.

Earlier in the episode, Alfredo explained the key to being Sherlock’s sponsor: patience. He needs someone to be patient and methodical, the way anyone solving a puzzle must be. As I said, puzzles are the heart of the show, not just in the sense that they’re at its core, but that they permeate the emotional aspects as well. In the world of Elementary, one must be patient and methodical to solve a murder, to solve a crossword, to break into a car’s security system, and to grow and heal.


To think, a prison sentence could have been avoided had Heather simply stuck to solving digital crosswords like Daily POP’s. No ink-stained muss, no legal fuss, no trace of handwriting or physical evidence left lying around in an office vent, waiting to explode.

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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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Do You Accept the Challenge of “The Impossible Crossword”? You absolutely should!

Part of the challenge for many crossword solvers is that you can’t adjust the difficulty of the cluing on a given day. The clues you get are the clues you get.

New York Times crossword solvers are intimately familiar with this, talking about Tuesday puzzles and Saturday puzzles and understanding what each means in terms of expected puzzle difficulty.

Our own Penny Dell Crosswords App offers free puzzles across three difficulty levels each day, but those are three distinct puzzles, not three different clue sets for one particular puzzle.

Having options for more than one set of clues is fairly rare. Lollapuzzoola has two difficulty-levels for their final tournament puzzle, Local and Express. GAMES Magazine previously offered two sets of clues for their themeless crossword, entitled The World’s Most Ornery Crossword.

The tournament final of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament offers different clue difficulties for three separate divisions. The Boswords Spring and Fall Themeless Leagues work in a similar manner, offering three levels of clue difficulty — Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy — for competitors to choose from.

The concept of Easy and Hard clues is not unheard of… it’s just rare.

And it’s only natural that someone, eventually, was going to take this concept and dial it up to a Spinal Tap 11.

The pair of someones in question are Megan Amram and Paolo Pasco.

Paolo is fairly well-known around crossword circles, having contributed puzzles to the American Values Club crossword, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, while also serving as associate crossword editor for The Atlantic.

And Megan is an incredibly talented television and film writer who has written for Parks and Rec, The Simpsons, and The Good Place. Anytime you saw a hilariously shameless punny name for a store in The Good Place, it was undoubtedly one of Megan’s.

Together, they unleashed The Impossible Crossword in the print edition of The New Yorker‘s December 27 issue, its first ever Cartoons & Puzzles issue. (It was made available on the website the week before.)

The instructions are simple: This crossword contains two sets of clues to the same answers. Toggle to the set labelled “Hard” to impress people looking over your shoulder. (And toggle to “Easy” when they look away.)

This 9×9 crossword’s Easy clues were fair and accessible, but the Hard clues were the real stars. They ricocheted between immensely clever, wildly obscure, and hilarious parodies of themselves.

For instance, the word JEST was clued on the Easy side as “Infinite ____” but received the brilliantly condescending add-on “Infinite ____” (novel that’s very easy to read and understand) in the Hard clues as a reference to the famously dense and impenetrable nature of the novel.

For the word APPS, the Easy clue was “Programs designed to run on mobile devices,” while the Hard clue was “Amuse-gueules, colloquially.”

(I had to look that one up. An amuse-gueule is “a small savory item of food served as an appetizer before a meal.”)

And those are just two examples.

When you finally finish the puzzle, this is your reward:

“You’re a genius! You can tell your mom to get off your case about going to law school.”

All at once, The Impossible Crossword manages to be a fun puzzle to solve on its own, a riotously fun gimmick that lampoons clue difficulty in general, and the most meta puzzle I’ve solved all year.

Kudos to Megan and Paolo for pulling it off. What a way to welcome the Cartoons & Puzzles era of The New Yorker while the rest of us close out another year of puzzling.


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The 2021 Boswords Fall Themeless League: Looking Back

boswords new

After two months of challenging, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable weekly solving, the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League came to a close last week.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League spreads out a tournament-style solving experience over nine weeks, one themeless crossword per week. Each puzzle is scored based on your answer accuracy (incorrect letters, empty squares, etc.) and how quickly you complete the grid.

While each week’s puzzle only had one solution, there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

With the previous two Themeless League events under my belt, I had a good sense of what to expect both from the puzzles and from myself.

Although I rarely solve online — and I solve themed crosswords far more often than themeless crosswords — I now have a good base to build on.

Unfortunately, I accidentally signed up for the wrong difficulty level this time around. The previous two seasons, I’d opted for the middle ground, Choppy. I signed up for Stormy by mistake, and didn’t realize my error until I logged in and prepared to solve the season’s first puzzle.

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As you might expect, being freed from the shackles of themed puzzle building allows constructors to really flex their creative muscle, indulging all sorts of curious and unexpected vocabulary as they cross long entries and employ fewer black squares in these impressive grids.

And since I’d mistakenly opted for the toughest level of cluing, I also saw the decidedly clever and devious side of each constructor as I navigated tricky wordplay and more challenging clue content.

The first puzzle of the season immediately showed me what I’d gotten myself into. I didn’t know the number of operas Beethoven had written, or who spoke what ended up being a Madonna quote, or what Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” was about.

I hit nearly half an hour with my solving time, which I think was a ten-minute increase from my performance in the previous League’s debut puzzle.

Although I would have better performances later in the season — my time averaged out to 24:48 across eight puzzles — that was definitely a shot right across the bow of my confidence.

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I could have contacted the organizers and asked to be moved over to Choppy. I’m sure they would have accommodated me; the Boswords team is terrific.

But instead, I decided to throw myself into the deep end and stick with Stormy and see how it went.

As I expected, it was quite a challenge. But I trusted my instincts more — filling in more guesses at the start, rather than letting them sit empty until crossing words offered confirmation — and overall, I enjoyed the experience. Sure, I was a little disheartened at how my season started, but knowing that I was competing — however slowly — at the steepest level available pushed me to keep going.

I’ve never been the fastest solver to begin with — doesn’t matter if it’s pencil and paper or on a computer — and I rarely time myself when I solve in my free time. But I kept setting different goals each week. If I had half the grid filled by a certain time, I’d set a time to beat based on that. I didn’t always succeed, but more often than not, I kept my time below whatever goals I’d set.

(Still, I dare not look at the times of the top performers, lest I despair once more. Heh.)

In the end, my individual rank was 220 (out of 303 Stormy solvers), and my overall rank was 251 (out of the 871 individual solvers). Not too shabby. A staggering 1253 people participated in this season’s event,

As for the puzzles themselves, they were solid. The vocabulary — particularly the longer entries — was incredibly creative and unexpected. And the constructors were fantastic.

Each brought their own style and flavor to the competition, and it was great to see well-established names like Byron Walden, Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, and the dynamite duo of Doug Peterson and Angela Olson Halsted mixed with newer names to the field like Mollie Cowger and Quiara Vasquez.

All in all, I enjoyed the Fall Themeless League. (Although I was more comfortable with the solving interface and I had a better handle on themeless solving, given that this was my third go-around, I still felt like a rookie tackling the Stormy-level clues.)

I think when the Spring Themeless League rolls around, I’ll try Stormy again. Now that I have a baseline to compare it to, I’d like to see how I can improve.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2022 like the Winter Wondersolve event on February 6th and the Spring Themeless League, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

They’ve already announced the teams for each! The Winter Wondersolve will be constructed by Kate Chin Park, Christina Iverson, Adesina Koiki, and Matthew Stock.

The Spring Themeless League will be handled by Adam Aaronson, Wendy L. Brandes, Katja Brinck, Julian Lim, Frank Longo, the team of Sophia Maymudes & Kyra Wilson, Ada Nicolle, Robyn Weintraub, and one constructor to be named later.

(Yup, a mystery constructor. They’re actually selecting them based on an open submission process, the details of which will be announced tomorrow, Wednesday 12/8! How cool is that?)

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was tough, but also a great deal of fun.


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Sweep Your Eyes Across These Ugly Puzzly Sweaters!

proper ugly sweater

It’s December, and you’ve probably already received an invitation to some sort of holiday event. Maybe it’s a housewarming, or a holiday luncheon, or a game night. But, maybe, it’s an ugly sweater party.

Ugly sweater parties used to be events that ironically appreciated sweaters that were made with genuine affection, but simply didn’t please the eye. But once ugly sweaters became a part of pop culture, they became, as all things do, a cottage industry, and now companies release “ugly” Christmas sweaters for every pop culture property imaginable.

Most of them are simply underwhelming — and a few are often actually quite lovely — but none of them really capture the spirit of the original ugly sweater party ideal.

abominable sweater

Of course, there are exceptions.

And then, there are the ones I’m on the fence about. Check out this Minesweeper-inspired ugly sweater from Microsoft:

minesweeper sweater

It’s not garish by any means. It’s cleverly designed and weirdly festive. But I also can’t imagine anyone buying it.

It’s certainly unique.

But it raised the question…

What other puzzly ugly sweaters are out there? Would they all feel too corporate like the modern ugly sweater patternings, or could I find some genuine diamonds in the rough?

Let’s find out, shall we?


Of course, when you type “puzzle ugly sweater” into Google, you find an amazing array of jigsaw puzzles featuring ugly sweater designs. And honestly, what a great idea for an image for a jigsaw. The riot of colors alone would make for a pretty fun jigsaw solving experience.

So I started pairing different puzzle brands with “ugly sweater” in my searches, and I began to yield some results, however mixed.

rubiks color sweater

There’s this Rubik’s sweater design, which I find a bit meh. It’s nice, it’s unoffensive. But it’s not the colorful visual assault I was hoping for.

I mean, look at this Rubik’s hoodie on Amazon. At least that seems to be trying to overwhelm your senses.

ugly rubik hoodie

So what about Tetris? Tetris is part of the fabric of modern puzzling. Surely there must be some Tetris-fueled designs for ugly sweaters.

tetris moscow sweater orig

The first result I found was this pattern, which is actually quite lovely. It’s discontinued in its original sweater form, but lives on as a print for t-shirts.

tetris stack shirt

There’s also this festive message delivered in the style of the monumentally successful Game Boy Tetris version of the puzzle classic. (I’ll probably end up ordering this shirt.)

These are festive, but hardly fit the ugly sweater criteria.

falling tetris sweater

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not particularly Christmas-y, but it does manage to barrage the eyes with color.

ugly tetris sweater

I found this one on Poshmark, and supposedly it won some sort of ugly sweater contest. Not sure who judged that one. This isn’t great, but it’s hardly ugly.

Alas, where else can we look?

math sweater

Well, there’s this ugly sweater-patterned take on the math puzzles that periodically circulate on social media. I couldn’t find it in actual sweater form, but it’s a start.

(It also exemplifies the unsatisfying corporate nature of the modern ugly sweater pattern. Festive borders on the top and bottom, and the hook in between. Nothing on the sleeves or back, no real effort involved.)

Finally, I turned my attention to crossword-specific sweaters, and I struck gold. None of these are particularly festive, but you could slap a bow on them and get past any discerning bouncer at the ugly sweater party of your choice in these.

pas de mer crossword sweater

This pas de mer sweater feels like you’re looking at a cryptic crossword grid through a funhouse mirror.

poshmark diffusion crossword sweater

I also found this sweater on Poshmark. You’ll be heartbroken to discover it’s already been sold. But man, you could easily wear this one at the crossword tournament or ugly sweater party of your choice and turn a few heads.

ebay ugly sweater

I wish I could find a bigger picture of this one somewhere. It was clearly made with love, and it’s one of the few that actually feels like a proper crossword grid.

crossword sweater vest

What is it about a sweater vest that somehow makes this worse than a normal sweater? Maybe it’s how the boxes don’t quite line up, or the two-letter words trailing off near the armpits. Man, this is pretty bad.

boating crossword sweater

And this one, fellow puzzlers, was the pièce de résistance. The random crisscross placement. The color palette. The way the lighthouse beam doesn’t make it past the center buttons, condemning the proud cross-legged sailor nearby to a disastrous collision with the rocks near the shore.

This might not be a Christmas sweater, but man, does it fit the bill in every other way.

Do you have any favorite ugly sweater designs? Are any of them puzzle-fueled? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Farewell, Stephen.

StephenSondheim-2020-GettyImages-50314607

[Image courtesy of Vanity Fair.]

Most people know him as a titan of Broadway and the American stage, the composer and lyricist behind dozens of iconic works, spanning decades. West Side Story. Gypsy. Into the Woods. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (My personal favorite? Assassins.)

Even as someone with a degree in theater, I don’t feel qualified to discuss or summarize his impact on the stage. It’s monumental. Incalculable. Iconic.

But as a puzzle enthusiast, I do feel qualified to discuss his influence in that realm. You see, Stephen Sondheim occupies a curious space in the history of puzzles.

sondheim

He created cryptic / British-style crosswords for New York Magazine in the late 1960s, helping to introduce American audiences to that devious and challenging variety of crosswords.

In fact, he famously wrote an article in that very same magazine decrying the state of American crosswords and extolling the virtues of cryptic crosswords. (He even explained the different cluing tricks and offering examples for readers to unravel.)

Sondheim was an absolute puzzle fiend. His home was adorned with mechanical puzzles, and he happily created elaborate puzzle games. Some of them were featured in Games Magazine! In his later years, he was also an aficionado of escape rooms. (Friend of the blog Eric Berlin shared a wonderful anecdote about Sondheim here.)

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He also represents another link in the curious chain that seems to connect musicians with crosswords. Prominent constructors like Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet, and Amanda Rafkin, as well as top crossword tournament competitors like Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin also have musical backgrounds.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like Jon Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Sondheim certainly fits the bill.

He will forever be remembered for his musical creations, and that legacy far overshadows his work in puzzles. But as someone who opened the door to a new brand of puzzle solving for many people, Sondheim will also have the undying loyalty, respect, and admiration of many puzzlers around the world.

We wholeheartedly include ourselves in that crowd of admirers.

Farewell, Stephen. Thank you.


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