Puzzly Podcasts: 99% Invisible and Revisiting the “Average Solver”

A geodesic dome.

Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and the World Game, once said, “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” This quotation inspired the title of 99% Invisible, a podcast about aspects of the designed and built world that typically go overlooked. Hosted by journalist Roman Mars, 99% Invisible began in 2010 as a joint effort between the San Francisco-based American Institute of Architects and SF public radio station KALW. Since April 2021, the podcast has been owned by broadcasting giant Sirius XM, but has remained essentially the same. On a weekly basis, Mars continues to provide listeners with calmly narrated explorations of topics like efforts to track the pandemic, the history of grocery store “ethnic food” aisles, and the skull logo representing Marvel’s Punisher character, including its memetic use among reactionaries.

It might sound counterintuitive, or in Mars’ words, like a “perversity,” to break down elements of design in a purely sound-based format. Without accompanying visuals, how are we meant to truly appreciate a discussion of graphic design in film and television, or the history of Hawaiian shirts? Mars considers the absence of images a boon, saying, “I thought the concept of doing a design radio show where you strip away the visual aesthetics actually made sense, it got to the parts of design I really loved, which was the problem solving.”

This element of problem solving at the core of every episode will likely appeal to any die-hard puzzler. If you’re interested in episodes more explicitly aligned with your love of puzzles and games, I would recommend starting with episode 189, “The Landlord’s Game,” about Monopoly, or episode 335, “Gathering the Magic,” about—you may have guessed—Magic the Gathering, or even episode 349, “Froebel’s Gifts,” which more broadly considers the history of play as a tool of intellectual development.

In Community, the attempt to represent an average human being led to this terrifying mascot.

Then there’s episode 226, “On Average.” My predecessor on the blog previously discussed the issues with the concept of the “average” crossword solver, questioning popular ideas that the average solver might not be familiar with spoon theory or arepas, and what these assumptions imply about the average solver’s identity. “On Average” takes Glenn’s questioning a step further, walking listeners through a nineteenth-century astronomer’s innovation of reducing human populations to statistical averages. The episode focuses most closely on the practice of flattening people out to bodily averages, but also discusses average calculation for social phenomena like marriages and murders, and the rise of the idea that the “average” is “morally the way to think about people.”

99% Invisible‘s host and guests take the stance of critiquing the average as ideal. One example the episode traces is the WWII design of Air Force planes for the average pilot. Most WWII pilots were not anywhere near average; in fact, zero of the 4,063 pilots measured in one study came anywhere close to perfectly fitting the average, and even when standards were relaxed, only a meager handful had average measurements. Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, sums the issue up thusly: “If you are designing something for an average pilot, it’s literally designed to fit nobody.”

The same might be said of puzzles. If we construct a puzzle for the average solver, are we really constructing a puzzle for anyone at all? Or has all the life been sucked out of the puzzle, all the potential for anyone to connect with its quirks? To settle into the cockpit and soar? If ninety-nine percent of who we are is invisible and untouchable, then ninety-nine percent of who we are cannot be reduced to statistics, cannot be turned into averages. Whether physically or mentally, people are more than patterns, more than perfectly proportioned crash test dummies, and every aspect of the world should be designed with this in mind, from planes to puzzles.


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Puzzly Podcasts: Song Exploder as Truth Window

There’s no place like home . . . especially if your home has a truth window installed.

“A truth window,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an opening in a wall surface, created to reveal the layers or components within the wall.” The inner workings of a house become elevated to the status of a treasured possession, displayed in a structure reminiscent of a small china cabinet or an oil portrait’s frame. Often, though not always, the material seen through the window’s glass pane is straw, simultaneously intricate in its multiplicity (a straw bale is made up of so many individual strands) and deceptively simple, rustic. Reminiscent of how The Wizard of Oz‘s scarecrow thought that his straw construction necessarily meant the absence of a brain, only to find out at the story’s end that he had been a brilliant, complex thinker all along.

A 2011 blog post by Geoff Manaugh compares truth windows to cannulas installed in the sides of cows to make their digestive systems accessible, and to the purely hypothetical idea of installing an upside-down periscope into the sidewalk of a dense urban area, showing off the infrastructure below (“subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers”). A truth window is a bloodless dissection, an invitation to contemplate—even treasure—the buried mechanics that we normally take for granted.

Hrishikesh Hirway began the music podcast Song Exploder in 2014 with a similar invitation in mind. His recent TED Talk, “What you discover when you really listen,” begins with Hirway drawing a comparison between a song and a house. The musical artist puts all this work, all these materials (all these bales of straw!) into a song, and while the listener is able to appreciate the beauty of the finished product as they walk past it on the sidewalk, they are not usually able to appreciate the work or the materials, the insides, the layers. They need a truth window. They need a skilled interviewer to join the musical artist in breaking down the song into its component parts.

An example of a truth window showing off straw.

Hirway explains, “Inside a song, there are all these parts that get imagined, and written, and recorded, that are so full of thought and beauty, but only the people who made the song ever get to hear those pieces on their own. All those pieces get smushed together in the final version that comes out.” Enter Song Exploder, in which Hirway sits down with a different musical artist each episode to trace the evolution of one of their songs. Raw clips of individual elements from the song—a beat here, a backing vocal track there—are interspersed throughout explanations from the artists of how the song grew, layers locking together into fantastical, never-before-seen structures like in a game of Tetris.

Continuing the house metaphor, Hirway says, “I thought this way, an artist could bring a listener in, and give them a guided tour of this house they made. They could point to the foundation and say, ‘This is how the song got started,’ and then as more and more layers get built on top, eventually the full song gets revealed.” Over the course of eight years, Song Exploder has featured a wide range of musical artists, including Willow Smith, Yo-Yo Ma, Nine Inch Nails, The Microphones, and The Roots. The staggering array of guests spans genres, fame levels, and stylistic approaches to music’s creation. Similarly, there are a variety of approaches to thinking about music’s creation; each artist tackles the challenge of co-constructing their truth window with Hirway differently.

Neko Case, in the episode on her song “Last Lion of Albion,” is focused on the technical details, the use of vocoder and reverb and the inability to harmonize successfully with herself. She tells guest host Thao Nguyen (of Thao With the Get Down Stay Down), “I like reverb because it’s showing what your human voice is vibrating, and how that reacts to that surroundings. Like how far am I from that wall? Or is this room made of concrete? Is there a lot of glass in here? Is there wood? . . . It kind of reminds you that the room is an instrument in a way.” Christine and the Queens takes a slightly different tack when dissecting “Doesn’t Matter,” speaking in heaps of figurative language. She compares the song as a whole to a Greek tragedy complete with choral input, compares distortion to “doing lace details,” and says that the mistakes she heard on the track and chose to keep, “To me, sounds like a spine . . . It feels like if you remove that, everything crumbles.”

Regardless of whether an artist is speaking about the nitty-gritty technical behind-the-scenes of a song or the more emotive, poetic work that went into its construction, a common thread of attention to structure is sewn throughout these podcast episodes. The structure of a house, the structure of a room, the structure of a skeleton. Without fail, in each episode, Song Exploder opens up a little door in a song’s wall and waves listeners through, taking us on a tour of the subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, and sewers contained within, showing us first the haystacks and then the needles strewn throughout, sharp and shining, prizes you might never have thought to look for otherwise.


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5 Questions with Christina Aimerito of Girls’ Game Shelf!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Christina Aimerito as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Christina pulls double duty as both the creator and host of Girls’ Game Shelf, a YouTube series all about board games and card games. As the host, Christina introduces the game and explains the rules before she and a rotating panel of female players put the game to the test.

It’s the perfect one-two punch to learn about new games and classics alike, as you get the one-on-one how-to at the start, followed by a strong sense of what the actual gameplay looks and feels like. Couple that with insights from the other players, and you’ve got a recipe for a terrific show that highlights the best of both games and communal play.

Christina was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Christina Aimerito

1. How did you get started with games?

I played games when I was younger, but the normal fare: Taboo, Scattergories, Stratego, MasterMind, and other classics. I’ve always had a fondness for games. But I started playing more modern games a little later in life. My husband wanted to get me into it, so he introduced me to Dominion, which was a pretty wise choice. I’ve always liked collecting things and had never played a deck-building game before. So yeah, that got me hooked and opened the door to the world of board games.

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great gaming experience? What separates a good two-player game from a good group game?

I enjoy games the most when there’s a good mix of strategy and conversation. A good two-player game and a group game still require those elements for me since I play games to interact with people.

The difference for me in two-player vs. large group games is more of a personal one. When I play a 2-player game, it’s usually to play with folks who are competitive and like strategy games. But in the group I play with, we have a pretty big variety of gamers. Some of them enjoy RPGs, some like heavy strategy, and often we have a newcomer to the table.

[Image courtesy of Geek and Sundry.]

The unifying element I’ve found is a game that forces people to interact with others during their turn. Games that lead people into analysis paralysis aren’t ever as exciting, and when there’s a group game we like to keep the energy up. Social deduction games, or games like Cosmic Encounter or Sheriff of Nottingham, are great because they involve everyone around the table.

3. You have a film background and a theater background. How do those aspects of your experience contribute to the process of making GGS, either in terms of production or in terms of being an on-camera personality?

Those aspects absolutely help me behind the scenes. In fact my background in film and theatre are what led me to create the series. I wanted to create a show so that I could get back in that creator headspace. I’m happy when I make things. Choosing a show about board games was a no-brainer because it was marrying the two things I loved most.

While my experience helped me off-camera in terms of producing, editing, and crafting the episodes, it surprisingly didn’t help me one bit in front of the camera. Playing a character is VERY different than being yourself. It was a terrifying experience for me at first. The whole first season I think I was just learning how to be comfortable with being myself instead of “getting it right.”

4. What’s next for Girls’ Game Shelf?

Well, we just started a podcast, so that’s the new baby right now. If that goes well, I’m very eager to start working on an RPG series with the girls. Whatever the case, Girls’ Game Shelf will certainly continue to make the original series, and hopefully down the line we’ll have the means to release more than one episode per month.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring YouTubers/podcasters, and game fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

For me, the first and most important thing is to be a good listener. Putting your voice out there takes guts, but listening takes discipline. It separates the good content from the stuff that feels heavy handed or forced. Truly listen to your peers, people you agree with, and people you disagree with in regards to the content you’re creating. This is part of doing your due diligence, but it’s also part of being a strong voice and a good host. I am constantly working on this for myself. Luckily, playing board games is usually a good training ground for it.

And secondly, be completely yourself. THAT is what people want to see. And if you’re trying to be anything but that, it will be so obvious. If you’re going to be podcasting or YouTubing, and feel anxious about this, then I highly recommend recording yourself in a few private episodes, just so you can gain that comfort before you share your voice with the world.


A huge thank you to Christina for her time. Be sure to check out Girls’ Game Shelf on YouTube, and to keep up on all things GGS on Twitter. To support this terrific show, you can check out the GGS Patreon page, which is loaded with bonus content, raffles, and more!

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