Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: Where Is The Line?

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A few days ago, an entry in The New York Times Crossword caught the eye of a solver. That solver posted about it in the Facebook group “The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory,” which is dedicated to encouraging new constructors to make and submit puzzles.

That post kicked off an intense debate about problematic entries and how to handle them. Not only is this topic far from settled, but it’s emblematic of a larger question: where is the line?

You see, one of the advantages of our modern Internet-savvy culture is that feedback is virtually instantaneous now. If someone is offended or troubled by an entry or clue in the Monday crossword, it doesn’t take days for a letter to the editor to arrive at the paper. It takes seconds to post online and reach a potential audience.

Of course, that rapid response is a double-edged sword, because hot takes and rush-to-judgment commentary are just as quick to spread.

Both sides of that double-edged sword were in full effect as the replies piled up on that original Facebook post. As those in agreement with the original poster offered their support, counterpoints rolled in, either in defense of the entry or the clue.

(Naturally, given that this is the Internet, some chose to expand on the topic in general disagreement with a culture they claimed was too sensitive and quick to condemn every little thing that offended them. But since those people are an incredible waste of time and energy and have little interest in genuine discussion, this will be my last mention of them.)

Other posters focused on the mechanics of the puzzle itself, pointing out easy fixes that would have prevented the potentially problematic word from appearing at all. Some of these folks sided with the original poster, pointing out that a word that is potentially problematic should be edited out, and it’s part of a constructor’s job to think of these things.

And that’s the question. How much should constructors and editors be taking the potentially problematic aspects of words into consideration when constructing?

True, it’s not always possible to anticipate every negative response to the words filling your grid or the accompanying clues. (Heck, we have numerous examples of words and clues slipping through that catch fire with part of the audience in the worst possible way.)

But is that part of a constructor’s job?

In my opinion, yes, it is.

Crosswords should be inclusive. They should be an engaging activity that evokes occasional frustration but eventual satisfaction, whether you’re completing a grid, unraveling a particularly tricky theme, or besting your previous solving time. It should be fun. It should be entertainment, a distraction.

It should NOT be a place where people feel excluded, or where personal or historical traumas surface because of cluing or grid fill.

For example, I don’t believe CHINK should appear in crosswords, even as “flaw in one’s armor,” because anyone casually glancing at the grid will only see that word, not necessarily the context.

We can do better.

[Image courtesy of Bogoreducare.org.]

Originally, I wasn’t going to mention the specific clue/entry at all, because the issue is larger than this one example. But knowing the word that offended our original poster adds context.

The entry was NOOSE, and the clue was “End of a hangman’s rope.”

For the poster, the associations surrounding both clue and entry were troubling. But, for the most part, the main reason for posting appeared to be twofold:

1. Pointing out that the word’s inclusion in the grid was easily avoidable
2. Asking if other constructors/aspiring constructors found the entry as problematic as she did

She wasn’t calling for peoples’ heads. She was opening a dialogue and inviting discussion. She made her personal feelings clear — by using the word “appalled” — but made the discussion about something larger than her individual reaction.

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Some replies concerned the clue more than the entry, pointing out that the noose was used for many other, non-negative uses. The general association of nooses with lynching was brought up, with some instantly making the connection while others felt it was unfair or hypersensitive to make that association. Others brought up the word LYNCH, asking if the entry was problematic even if the cluing was about director David or actress Evanna.

These aren’t easy questions to answer. This is obviously not a debate that will be concluded anytime soon. But it’s one worth having.

And when it comes to conclusions to draw from all this, I think the original poster said it best in one of her replies: “In my opinion, it’s better to err on the side of empathy.”

Amen.


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Puzzling From Home!

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In the wake of puzzly public events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament being cancelled, as well as the shutdown of various school districts, workplaces, and businesses in order to limit exposure to the Coronavirus, it’s completely understandable that some puzzle fans may be feeling disappointed or even isolated from their fellow puzzlers.

But fear not! There are all sorts of options available to solvers looking to enjoy a puzzly experience from home, either on their own or with friends.


If you’re looking for crosswords, all you need is your computer. The New York Times, The LA Times, The Washington Post, and many other outlets offer online puzzle-solving, either by subscription or through watching ads before solving.

If you have access to a printer, you can print those puzzles out for the true pencil-and-paper solving experience.

And it’s not just newspapers. Many constructors — Brendan Emmett Quigley comes to mind — offer their own free puzzles semi-regularly (though you’re welcome to tip as a thank you). There is a world of puzzles out there on the Internet awaiting solvers.

But you don’t even have to go to a computer anymore. There are loads of terrific puzzles available right on your phone. Forgive us for tooting our own horn, but Daily POP Crosswords is a great puzzle app with a free puzzle every day and additional puzzle packets available for purchase or through our in-app coin system. (We also offer Word Seeks, Sudoku, and a marvelous story-driven puzzle mystery, Wordventures, if you’re looking for something different.)

Oh, and speaking of something different, if you’re looking to delve into more elaborate puzzles, there are some fantastic puzzle services by mail that offer all sorts of challenges.

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Wish You Were Here by the Enigma Emporium conceals an entire mystery within a handful of postcards, challenging you to mine them for every scrap of information as you uncover a series of coded messages. It’s spycraft in an envelope, very clever stuff.

The Cryptogram Puzzle Post out of the UK offers something unique, mixing puzzles and encryption with bits of mystery and supernatural narratives to create standalone chapters in an ongoing story. So you can pick one season or an entire year, depending on how deep you want to go!

And for multi-month affairs, there are outlets like Hunt a Killer and The Mysterious Package Company, which create vast, immersive puzzle experiences by mail. (Though according to friends’ recommendations, Hunt a Killer works better without the month wait between installments.)

As you can see, there’s a wide variety of ways you can puzzle from home, whether you prefer to solve online, by email, on the phone, or by mail!


That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but what about the social aspect? Well, there are options there as well, even from the comforts of your home.

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

Some puzzlers actually livestream their puzzle-solving online through avenues like Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube. The New York Times periodically does this as well, often with celebrity guest solvers!

You can keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter for constructors and solvers who do so. It often adds a fun, communal element to puzzle-solving (especially if they struggle with the same tricky clues that you do). Some pub trivia outlets are also moving online to allow for participating from home!

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But if you don’t want to wait for someone to livestream their solving, you can do it yourself! Between Facetime and similar apps on smartphones and all the online avenues for audio and video-chatting (Skype, Google Hangouts, Discord, etc.), you could pair up with a friend and tag-team a crossword puzzle or other puzzly challenge!

It’s like co-working, except with puzzles. Co-solving!

In times like this, where uncertainty abounds and our comfortable routines have been upended, puzzles can offer a wonderful refuge from all the stresses of the world. And with technology on our side, we can even keep the communal joys of puzzling in our lives.

Happy puzzling, friends.


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Happy One Year Anniversary, Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory!

It’s funny how crosswords can seem like a solitary pursuit — and are often depicted as such in pop culture — and yet, there’s such a sense of camaraderie that comes with being a solver.

I talk a lot about the PuzzleNation community and my fellow PuzzleNationers, or about the puzzle community in general, because it’s one of my favorite aspects of being a puzzle guy.

Whether it’s engaging in a puzzly activity with friends (like an escape room or a D&D adventure), hanging out with fellow puzzlers at events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (registration is open now!), or just teaming up with a pal to crack a particularly devious puzzle or brain teaser, those moments of shared experience are as encouraging as they are welcome.

So it’s very cool to see one of the newer parts of the puzzle community celebrating its one-year anniversary: The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory.

This Facebook group is part gathering place for established and aspiring constructors and part resource for constructors of all skill levels.

Over the last year, people have posted and shared information about everything from grid construction, editing programs, and cluing advice to networking, test-solving, and encouraging feedback.

[Some constructors even offer visual aids when answering questions!]

Inexperienced and aspiring constructors meet and collaborate with established names. Obstacles, problems, and questions are handled with equal care and support. Heck, some constructors have even posted rejection notices they’ve received in order to share the valuable feedback it contains.

And some members of the group have greater ambitions for the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, hoping to encourage more constructors from underrepresented groups to construct and submit their puzzles, bringing a genuine level of equality and equal representation in the world of puzzles.

It’s a place to learn, to network, to grow, to celebrate one’s successes, and learn from one’s setbacks. One of the regular visitors of the group even managed to cross off one of her New Year’s resolutions last year by submitting a crossword to The New York Times, thanks in part to the resources and support provided by this marvelous group of people.

And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.


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Six Years of PuzzleNation Blog (Plus a Contest)!

[Image courtesy of Bogoreducare.org.]

Yes, we’re celebrating today, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

We’re celebrating because it is the sixth anniversary of the very first post here on PuzzleNation Blog! Yes, we’ve been on this puzzly journey together since August of 2012, and in my admittedly biased yet humble opinion, it’s been a brilliant one.

In those six years, we’ve published over a thousand posts! (More than nine hundred of them penned by yours truly.) We’ve delved into puzzle history, cracked diabolical brain teasers, marked milestones like the centenary of the crossword, and even rejoiced at puzzly proposals of marriage!

And to celebrate six years of PuzzleNation Blog, we’ve got a week of activities planned for our marvelous readers and fellow puzzlers!

For starters, we’re loading over a hundred new pins to our Pinterest account for your viewing pleasure!

And we’re launching a promotion across all of our social media platforms to celebrate the anniversary. It’s our PuzzleNation 6th Anniversary Contest!

[Image courtesy of Ad Libbing.]

Starting today, and every day for the next five days, we’ll be posting a different brain teaser on Instagram.

Also starting today, keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter, because each day for the next five days, we’ll be asking for a single answer from that day’s Daily POP Crosswords App puzzle and that day’s Penny Dell Crosswords App puzzle.

(These will be separate from the usual Crossword Clue Challenge posts, and we’ll mark them with “PuzzleNation 6th Anniversary Contest” to distinguish them.)

Message us on FB or Twitter with the answer, or message us on Instagram with the answer to a brain teaser, and you’ll go into a drawing for a terrific prize! (And yes, since there are different brain teasers each day and different answers for each of the two daily puzzles, you can enter multiple times to increase your odds of winning!)

Enjoy the contest, fellow puzzlers. It’s a small thank you for being a part of the PuzzleNation community.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Carpet Conundrum 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 in today’s post, I’d like to return to the subject of visual puzzles.

We’re keeping it simple today. In this photo that’s been making the rounds on Facebook and Reddit, can you find the iPhone?

Let us know if you spotted it! It’s tougher than you might think!

Happy Friday!


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Tougher than 99% of solvers? I think not.

A friend on Facebook sent me this link to a quiz that claims being able to solve the following brain puzzles puts your IQ in the Top 1%.

The Top 1% of what, I have no idea. But I digress.

I can’t resist a brain teaser, especially one with such a lofty premise, so I clicked the link and accepted the challenge.

And I feel confident saying that, except for one question, I firmly believe every PuzzleNationer in the audience could conquer these “brain puzzles” effortlessly.

To be fair, I have good reason to feel confident going into this challenge, because the example was the parking lot puzzle we featured on the Blog years ago.

And thus, I clicked and ventured forth into the realm of supposed geniuses.

The first question asked that we count the number of Fs in a sentence, counting on the tendency of people to miss Fs in small words like “of.” No problem here.

The second question offered a brain teaser classic, asking us to count how many squares are in this grid:

[I’m sure you’ve seen this one before.]

The third was a brain teaser, one of those calendar-based ones like “If today is Thursday’s yesterday’s yesterday’s yesterday, how many days away is Friday?” No sweat.

Then there were some optical illusions, visual manipulation, and spacial awareness puzzles, like what would such-and-such look like if this happened. That sort of thing. Easy-peasy.

But then the quiz took a strange turn. It asked what you saw first in a picture containing with several images. (It’s like that picture of the old woman and the young woman, asking which you saw first. It’s a really odd question under the circumstances.)

Then, as advertised, the parking lot puzzle showed up.

The last one was the only real challenge. You were given a six-by-six grid full of symbols — black clubs and spades from playing cards, plus red hearts, diamonds, and squares, some upright, some upside-down — with one square empty. And you had to pick which symbol fit the empty space.

I confess, I haven’t yet cracked this one, but apparently my guess — upside-down spade — was good enough to merit the following response:

Based on this assessment, your intelligence is extremely advanced. You are a genius with a near-perfect IQ. You have an incredible mastery of both analytical AND abstract thought processes. You are very number-orientated and have strong mathematical and logic skills.

And on the other hand, you have a avid imagination and the keen ability to think outside of the box. Your core capacities include mental imagery, spatial reasoning, image manipulation, and strong artistic skills. As evident by this test, you are excellent at solving puzzles. You will most likely succeed in technical, scientific, or mathematical fields.

Now, I understand that most of these quizzes exist to make you feel smart and/or give you something positive to post on Facebook and share with friends and family.

That being said, this is hardly a challenge that would exclude 99% of solvers. In fact, my fellow PuzzleNationers, considering some of the brain teasers we’ve tackled together, I think we’re all justified in posting that victory text on Facebook. I have no doubt that we’ve all earned it.


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