A Secret Code Lurking in the Library Stacks!

[Image courtesy of Wonderopolis.]

The best thing about secret codes is that they can hide in plain sight. In the past, we’ve referenced all sorts of ciphers and codes that were employed to pass secret messages across open channels.

But, as it turns out, clandestine communication isn’t the only end to which secret codes can be applied.

Recently, I stumbled upon a series of Tweets that detailed a mystery at a library involving a secret code.

[Image courtesy of Princeton.edu.]

Take it away, Georgia:

So there was a MYSTERY at the library today.

A wee old women came in and said “I’ve a question. Why does page 7 in all the books I take out have the 7 underlined in pen? It seems odd.”

“What?” I say, thinking she might be a bit off her rocker. She showed me, and they did.

I asked if she was doing it, she said she wasn’t and showed me the new book she was getting out that she hadn’t even had yet. It also had the 7 underlined! “I don’t know, maybe someone really likes page 7?” I said, assuming of course that there is a serial killer in the library.

I checked some other books. Most didn’t have it, but a lot in this genre did – they’re “wee old women” books (romances set in wartime Britain etc). Lots of underlined 7s. The woman who pointed it out shrugged and went on her way, “just thought you should know”.

[Image courtesy of MovieSteve.com.]

What could it mean? Was there a secret message spelled out somehow across the seventh page of all these books? Perhaps the seventh word? What could the message be? A warning? A threat? A great universal truth? A clue to a hidden treasure? The start of a symbol-laden journey across European with sinister forces hot on your heels?

Well, no. Calm down.

As it turns out, there wasn’t a secret message or a hunt across Europe or a threat from a diabolical library-obsessed serial killer on the loose. There was simply an elderly client with her own unique code.

Apparently, she was underlining page 7 in every book she read, in order to keep track of which books she’d already read, in case she comes across it on the shelf again.

And she’s far from the only one! Upon further research, the librarian uncovered a number of different tracking systems, many of them pre-dating the use of computers to keep library records!

Whether there’s a little star on the last page, or an F on the title page, or a page 7 underlined, each code reveals a different, dedicated reader with their own system.

When she posted this story on Twitter, other library employees and former employees piped up to share their own encounters with secret library codes that patrons employed!

I think it’s fascinating that systems like this seem to have been around as long as libraries, probably discovered (and re-discovered) periodically as different patrons and librarians alike notice them.

Better living through secret codes. Who knew?


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Brand New! Starter Sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords App!

Hello, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

That’s right, we’ve got a bonus Friday post for you, because we just couldn’t wait until the weekend to announce the latest addition to the Penny Dell Crosswords App lineup!

Say hello to our new Starter Sets!

These bite-size bundles of puzzly delight are the perfect appetizer for any solver. Each set consists of 5 puzzles: 2 easy, 2 medium, and 1 hard, so it’s a great introductory set for solvers of any experience level!

They’re available for both Android and iOS users right now!

And best of all, they’re only 99 cents!

With razor-sharp clues and the world-class construction you’ve come to expect from PuzzleNation, you can’t go wrong with this fantastic deal!

We’re dedicated to bringing you the best puzzle-solving experience available, right in your pocket, ready to go at a moment’s notice! That’s the PuzzleNation guarantee.

Happy solving everyone!


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Publish More Women!

That was the message received loud and clear by attendees at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last year if they saw Erik Agard’s t-shirt. The future ACPT champion was amplifying a call that has resonated throughout the puzzle community for years now.

And yet, puzzles are often still regarded as a boys’ club.

Despite the fact that Margaret Farrar got the ball rolling. Despite the fact that Maura Jacobson contributed a puzzle to each of the first 34 ACPT tournaments and created over 1400 puzzles for New York Magazine. Despite a grand tradition of female innovators, tournament champions, and topnotch constructors that continues to this very day.

This topic once again took center stage recently when Will Shortz, gatekeeper for The New York Times crossword, posted his thoughts on the subject online:

Periodically I get asked, “Why aren’t more female constructors published in the New York Times?” And I always think, “Well, we don’t get a lot of submissions from women.” But until now I’ve never counted.

So this afternoon I counted. I looked through 260 recent submissions … and counted 33 by female constructors. That’s a little under 13%.

This figure is in line with the percentage of female constructors we publish. Last year, according to the stats at XwordInfo, 13% of the crosswords published in the Times were by women. So far this year the figure is slightly better — 15%.

Why this number is still so low, I don’t know.

In positive news, the number of new female constructors is significantly higher. In 2016, 31% of the 26 contributors who made their Times debut were female. In 2017, 19% were female. So far this year 27% have been female. XwordInfo lists all the names.

Our goal is to be inclusive. We want the Times crossword to reflect the lives, culture, and vocabulary of the people who do it, and having more female-made puzzles would provide better balance.

Still for us to publish more women constructors, we need to receive more puzzles by women. That’s the bottom line.

Our policy is open submissions. If you’re a woman who’d like to get into crossword constructing, we’d welcome your contributions, and we’ll be happy to work with you to get you published.

Reactions across the puzzle community have been mixed, but a number of people found Will’s response lacking. They asked what actual steps would be taken in order to encourage women and other underrepresented groups. Would there be additional support from the NYT for these sought-after constructors? Or would the status quo remain precisely that?

Those are questions worth asking. After all, the Times has been celebrating its 75th anniversary for the last year and a half with celebrity guest constructors. But how many of those celebrity collaborations have been with female constructors?

Three. That’s a project with huge visibility and mainstream media crossover potential, and the number is three.

And speaking of media crossover, it wasn’t that long ago — less than two years, actually — that the divisive clue “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM appeared in the NYT. Ruth Gordon wrote a brilliant piece in Slate highlighting how cluing standards at the Times could be exclusionary:

“Hateful” and “awful” may seem a bit harsh for what reads like a lame attempt at cheekiness. But the clue is certainly tone-deaf. And it’s not the first time a puzzle’s un-PC cluelessness has annoyed people. In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: “One caught by the border patrol.” The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision.

And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN — presumably with an invisible exclamation point and flying sweat out of a Cathy comic.

So, how has the NYT crossword been doing over the last two years?

We can turn again to the insightful Erik Agard for context. While guest-posting on Rex Parker’s puzzle blog, Erik took a moment to celebrate and spread the word about Women of Letters, the marvelous 18-puzzle charity project we also discussed a few weeks ago:

It’s also a lot of women! In fact, there are more woman-constructed crosswords in this collection than there have been published by the New York Times so far this year. Those who fail to see the urgency in closing the gender gaps in crossword constructing and editing often posit that ‘you can’t tell the difference between a crossword written by a woman and one written by a man’ (ergo, whether women are equally represented has little bearing on the end product, so why should we care).

The puzzles in Women of Letters disprove that thesis in a big way, through the dizzying array of less-traveled roads explored by themes, grids, and clues alike. From the juiciest marquee answers in the themelesses to the simplest choice of referencing a legendary actress by her accolades and not just [Bond girl], the collection never ceases to be a breath of fresh, inimitable air. (As the young people say: “Your fave could never.”)

That comment was posted on April 29th, and yes, as of April 29th, the New York Times crossword had published 17 puzzles from female constructors (including male/female collabs). That’s 17 out of 119 puzzles for the year, or 14.3%.

Erik helpfully provided some other statistics for the sake of comparison:

  • Crosswords With Friends: 33/119 = 27.7%
  • The Los Angeles Times: 31/119 = 26.1%
  • American Values Club Crossword: 3/18 = 16.7%
  • Chronicle for Higher Education: 2/16 = 12.5%
  • Wall Street Journal: 9/99 = 9.1%
  • Fireball Crosswords: 0/19 = 0%

It’s also worth pointing out that, as of April 29th, our Daily POP Crosswords app stood at 87/119, or 73.1%.

If you update the listings up through May 15th, Daily Pop Crosswords published 95 puzzles by women over 135 days. March alone featured 21 puzzles by women across 31 days. Heck, in February, only two puzzles the entire month were constructed by men. (Er, man, to be more specific. The same chap constructed both.)

But those aren’t the only numbers worth celebrating. Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles maintain an impressive publication rate for The Crosswords Club subscription service. They publish six puzzles a month, so from January to May, that’s 30 puzzles, and 16 were constructed by women (including three collabs). The January issue was all female constructors.

That’s no surprise, honestly, given the company. At Penny/Dell Puzzles, women constitute the majority of not only puzzle editors, but upper management as well.

So, forgive me if I come off as flippant, but when Will Shortz asks, “Why this number is still so low?”, I have to ask why as well.

Because the constructors are out there, right now, doing tremendous work.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Anatomy Fluxx

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

When compared to the staggering number of pure-entertainment games out there, the number of educational games — that are still lots of fun — is pretty small. But it is growing steadily, and the team at Looney Labs is at the forefront of that endeavor with a series of education versions of their classic card game, Fluxx.

With Math and Chemistry covered by previous editions, the Looney Labs crew looked inward for inspiration for the next edition in the series, Anatomy Fluxx, and they’ve struck gold.

For the uninitiated, Fluxx is a straightforward card game. You collect keeper cards and put them into play. Different combinations of keeper cards complete different goals, and each player has the chance to put different keeper cards and goal cards into play in order to win. So you might find yourself working toward completing the goal at hand when suddenly somebody plays a new goal, and the object of the game changes.

Along the way, players affect how the game is played by utilizing action cards and new rule cards which alter what players can and can’t do. Suddenly, you’ll have to trade your hand with another player, or start drawing three cards each turn instead of one.

So here, you’re combining different organs and body parts (your keeper cards) to form different bodily systems (your goals). But creating Anatomy Fluxx wasn’t simply a matter of swapping out keepers and goals with biology references.

In addition to the usual rule change cards regarding how many cards to draw, how many play, hand limits, and so, they’ve introduced rules to make use of bonus educational information at the bottom of each keeper card.

These rules offer bonus card draws if:

  • you can name an organ after hearing the facts about it
  • you can recite the facts for a given organ
  • you can offer an alternative, true fact about a given organ

There’s even a meta rule you can use to ensure that at least one educational card is in play at all times, if you really want to reinforce the trivia provided!

And the innovations don’t stop there. They’ve built upon the concept of creeper cards — detrimental keeper cards that can prevent you from winning — by introducing ungoals: goal cards where all players LOSE when the wrong combination of creeper cards are played.

Not only do the ungoals offer additional stakes to the game, but they serve an educational purpose as well; the ungoals highlight actual medical dangers. If you have the Mutation creeper, alongside either the Lungs keeper or Prostate keeper, the Cancer ungoal is met and everyone loses. (The poignant fact at the bottom of the Cancer ungoal states “Breast cancer is most common, followed by lung and prostate.” Sobering, but true.)

But that’s not to say that all of the new features of the game are dour. Take, for instance, the Heartbeat rule card: if someone has the Heart in play, and they perform a heartbeat sound during the other players’ turns, they’ll earn bonus cards. That’s the sort of silliness that makes Fluxx great fun.

All in all, I was impressed by the depth of creativity that went into the latest offering from Looney Labs. This is a game that lives up to the chaotic, replayable spirit of Fluxx, but with new tactics, solid educational information, and some important messages to take away from the game as well. Their educational Fluxx series continues to impress.

Anatomy Fluxx is available now from Looney Labs!


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A Video Game Puzzle Hunt Reaps Real-World Rewards!

We’ve written about some pretty amazing and elaborate puzzle hunts here in the past. There was the Gravity Falls cipher hunt that led to an actual statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher in the woods of Reedsport, Oregon. (And a mayoral position for the first person to find him and shake his hand!) There was the puzzle-turned-global-scavenger hunt from Trials Evolution that won’t be completed until 2113 at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

And now, a massive crowdsourcing effort has cracked another masterpiece, a puzzle hidden in an expansion pack for the video game Destiny 2. Destiny 2 is an online first-person-shooter loaded with sci-fi trappings and in-depth storytelling where players explore a shared environment while engaging in their own personal plot and adventures.

The most recent expansion to the game, Warmind, was released last week, and players noticed an elaborate symbol on a wall in the bunker of Rasputin, a sentient robot. The symbol appeared to be a lock surrounded by keys and curious symbols.

This Kotaku post went live on Friday, three days after the Warmind release, revealing the incredible online effort already in motion to unravel the secrets of the Rasputin puzzle. The subreddit r/raidsecrets was ground zero for the puzzle-solving efforts, and players compiled their theories and discoveries there.

Players quickly determined that each of the keys had a symbol that linked back to other imagery from the game, and by following those breadcrumbs, they had a chance to crack the cipher.

The first symbol was found in several places, each time with a set of digits and a bar in a particular position. Solvers theorized that these symbols represented the word “reverse.”

The second symbol appeared beside a Braille grid, leading hunters to crates with Braille lettering on them: OEAARRTFWTH. This anagrams to The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s famous tome. In this case, The Art of War was used as the source material for an Ottendorf Cipher. (That particular cipher was made famous by Nicolas Cage’s National Treasure movies.)

This type of cipher uses numbers in groups of three, and these numbers correspond to positions of letters in a book. Most often the numbers refer to Line, Word, and Letter. Decoding the number-combinations in the image above led to the answer “Destroy all second A and B. Then destroy all third C and R.”

These two clues were assumed to be instructions for what to do with the encoded ciphertext others had discovered in the game:

This encrypted message was the heart of the puzzle. But there was more to uncover first.

As it turns out, the last three keys in the image represented different words to apply to the ciphertext in order to properly decode it.

The fourth symbol was found near a Morse Code sequence that spelled out “NTEHNMLNEEGIT,” an anagram for “Enlightenment.”

The fifth symbol pointed toward a monitor with some peculiar code on it. It turns out the code was actually Jianpu, an ancient form of Chinese notation for writing music. When translated into actual music, a player identified the piece as an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

One intrepid codebreaker then tried to decrypt the ciphertext given the clues everyone had assembled thus far.

He reversed the ciphertext, according to the instruction of the first key. He then removed every other A and every other B from the text, then every third C and every third R, according to the instructions of the second key.

Then, employing a Vigenere cipher, he used the two key words he had — “enlightenment” and “swan lake” — to begin decrypting the text. He managed to decrypt the entire text, but more incredibly, he also reverse engineered the missing third key word — “mechanized” — while doing so.

And what was the final message, after all this?

thank you for taking the time to piece together this message, friend. the time of our final conflict is drawing closer and you and ana have an important role to play in the events to come. so watch over her, guardian. i would have no life without ana or the exoprogram. i regret that we have become strangers, but we each have a path that we must walk. and, ironically, there never seems to be enough time. tell her, rasputin’s first attempt was in the right location, but the wrong moment. look here: 43.549573, -73.544868 – e

As you might suspect, those numbers at the end are GPS coordinates, which correspond to Sleeping Beauty Mountain in upstate New York. (The company that developed Warmind, Vicarious Visions, is based in upstate New York.)

A small treasure trove of prizes awaited the brave soul who trekked out to Sleeping Beauty Mountain on Saturday morning. The centerpiece was a giant spear, a replica of a weapon from the game known as the Valkyrie.

From the Kotaku article following up on the puzzle’s resolution:

There was also a box of gold coins (along with instructions asking the finder to only take one), a set of notes, and a journal for recording visitors. The note, from Warmind design lead Rob Gallerani, encouraged the finder(s) to share photos of this discovery and told them that there are only three spears like that in existence — one at Vicarious Visions, one at Bungie, and this.

The spear, shown above (alongside the visiting team from Vicarious Visions) now resides at a comic shop called The Freakopolis Geekery.

As for the gold coins and the geocache Vicarious Visions had set up for others who make the trip, unfortunately, park rangers removed it because the designers didn’t get a permit. The coins have been returned to Vicarious Visions, who are currently reaching out to all the folks at r/raidsecrets who contributed to the solution of the puzzle, hoping to get them the coins they so richly deserve.

And, as if all that wasn’t amazing enough, it turns out… this might not be the end of the adventure.

Because a sharp-eyed observer noticed some text embossed on the upper portion of the replica Valkyrie spear:

At the moment, no one knows what the letters mean. But if I had to wager, I’d say the master puzzle solvers at r/raidsecrets should keep digging. Who knows what they’ll find next?


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Three years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fourth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 2, and this year, the theme is “Dressed to Fill.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament, and if you can make it to D.C., it’s only $30 to compete! But don’t worry if you can’t, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a fashion-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fourth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament newcomers Anna Gundlach, Laura Braunstein, Lily Silverstein, and Sophia Maymudes!

And, of course, there will be pie.

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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