Puzzle(r)s in Pop Culture: Superhuman

Superhuman is a television show on FOX that combines elements of game shows and talent shows, wherein people with exceptional mental abilities are tested on the air, competing for a $50,000 grand prize.

The show has featured exhibitions of memorization, visual acuity, math and puzzling skills, and more, offering people the rare opportunity to show off the mind’s amazing capabilities. (It also bucks the trend of modern reality competition shows by not having the contestants judged by a smug British man.)

Actor Kal Penn hosts the show, and the three panelists who comment on performances and help choose the winner are boxer Mike Tyson, singer Christina Milian, and neuroscientist Dr. Rahul Jandial.

And on last week’s episode, “All Parts Extraordinary,” a face familiar to puzzlers and crossword fans appeared on the show: Tyler Hinman.

The former 5-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion was pitted against four other contestants with impressive mental abilities.

Chris Authement, a math whiz, was tasked with adding up all the pips on giant dominoes as they fell, correctly counting 535 pips in the time allotted.

Tatiana Marquardt, a mother of three with impressive memory recall, was tasked with memorizing five days of scheduling for three different kids. Each day had four activities. The judges then randomly chose a child and a day of the week, and she had to pack their backpacks for each day’s agenda. And she nailed all three days.

Dave Farrow, a computer scientist with a focus on robots, memorized a grid of 108 blue and red balloons (laid out in an 18×6 grid). Then, based on the judge’s choices, he was asked to recall the color of a particular balloon, the pattern of a particular column of balloons, and finally, a particular row of balloons. Recited backwards. And he did so.

Luke Salava, a lawyer with a knack for facial recognition, had to learn the faces of 100 members of the studio audience. Then, three of those people were removed, and that entire section of the audience was reshuffled. His task was to identify the three new people in the crowd. And he did so with ease.

When it was Tyler’s turn to show off his puzzly skills, he had a serious challenge ahead of him.

This grid of crisscrossing 5-letter words can only be completed with the letters in a 9-letter word provided alongside the grid. But Tyler had five of these grids to solve, and he wasn’t told which of the five 9-letter words went with which grid.

Oh, and he only had 3 minutes and 30 seconds in which to solve all five grids.

He went right up to the wire, but solved all five grids, showing off not only his deductive reasoning, but his vast vocabulary and his speed-solving technique, honed by years of crossword solving and tournament competition.

After all five competitors had their time to shine, the judges narrowed the field to three: Chris, Dave, and Tatiana. And the audience voted electronically for the winner: Dave Farrow, master of balloons.

Honestly, I thought both the judges and the audience picked wrong. Tyler was the only one who really had to work out his technique in front of the crowd, showing missteps and false paths that he corrected on the fly.

He actually talked through the process as he solved, which to me was more engaging and interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, the acts of memorization were very impressive, but only Tyler and math whiz Chris were really under a time limit. (Tyler’s was literal, while Chris’s was kinetic, since the dominoes were toppling.)

Also, I can’t believe that Luke didn’t at least make the top three, let alone win. 100 faces to memorize and reshuffle in your head? That’s mind-boggling to me.

Alas, such is the flying fickle finger of fate. Still, it was a strong showing for a world-class puzzler, an exhibition of puzzly talent that did not fail to impress.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Twin Peaks: The Return

On Tuesday, I concluded a multi-part series about the history of American codebreaking. In a related story, a fellow puzzler pointed out that there might be a new code out there awaiting an enterprising codebreaker.

In a recent episode of the television show Twin Peaks: The Return, there was a brief scene with an airplane flying over a snowy mountain. Sharp-eyed viewers noticed that the plane’s windows seemed to disappear and reappear as it flew.

Naturally, when you have a show that’s all about trying to unravel mysteries and finding deeper meaning in even the most obscure clues, fans leapt onto this possibility and began trying to crack the code of the windows.

There are six windows, and they disappear and reappear numerous times in the brief scene. (There’s also a spot closer to the tail that also appears and disappears.)

[One solver’s breakdown of the plane window pattern.]

Charting out a possible pattern in the windows has led to several intriguing theories. While attempts to translate the pattern into morse code, binary, and other languages have yielded nothing so far, some fans posit that it’s a musical pattern, since one of the characters, FBI agent Gordon Cole, plays a 6-hole flute. (A villain from the original series, Windom Earle, also played a flute.)

While this may simply be a red herring, I suspect there’s more to the window mystery than just providing a distraction in a show littered with distractions.

People have gone so far as to track down the original footage of the plane flying, so they can see what was altered to produce the window pattern:

What do you think, PuzzleNationers? Is there a message or a tune lurking in plain sight on Twin Peaks: The Return? Or is this much ado about nothing?


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Joel McHale Hides Puzzles Where You’d Least Expect!

Last year, I was surprised to stumble across a puzzle in the autobiography of comedian, actor, and magician Neil Patrick Harris, Choose Your Own Autobiography. It was a clever Neil-centric cryptic word-cross puzzle that rewarded attentive readers, since all of the answers were about events Neil discussed in the book.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised to again discover a puzzle in a celebrity autobiography. But this time around, comedian, host, and actor Joel McHale has upped the ante by offering three puzzles in his book Thanks for the Money: How to Use My Life Story to Become the Best Joel McHale You Can Be.

Amidst hilarious anecdotes, bad advice for starting a career in Hollywood, and actual biographical facts, Joel includes a word-cross, a word search, and a matching game, all of which are about him!

The matching game is arguably the toughest of the three, since you have to match the image of him to the name of the character he portrayed.

The word-cross, though, is not far behind when it comes to difficulty, since the limited crossings offer fewer helpful letters to assist in solving. Not to mention that more straightforward clues like 1 Down — Second word in title of ninth chapter — are few and far between. More often, you encounter something like 14 Across — Anagram for synonym of puzzle.

Plus, there’s no clue at all for 33 Down, making the grid even tougher.

Although I was able to solve most of the grid, some of the entries eluded me.

Still, I have to give style points to 29 Across: “Police Academy” star, if his name had one less “T” and he invented movable type for printing presses.

The word search, which is branded a “Wrod Jembul” (since Joel is dyslexic), is both the most creative and the most solvable of the three puzzles.

In this puzzle, you’re given thirteen clues for various products Joel has done advertisements for, and you need to find them in the grid. Except every entry is jumbled up, complicating things greatly.

Although the puzzle is not perfect — FITBIT can be found in two ways, as can IHOP, and KLONDIKE BAR is the only entry spelled out for some reason — it’s great fun and a very fair solve.

Thanks for the Money is a very fun read, outrageous and engaging in equal measure. But finding a few puzzles inside? That’s the cherry on top.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Gotham

[Image courtesy of Comic Book Movie.]

Fox’s comic book crime drama Gotham returns from its winter break on Monday, January 16th, kickstarting the second half of its third season. For the uninitiated, Gotham is set before the days of Batman’s adventures; Bruce Wayne is a young man, James Gordon is a detective, the city is rife with corruption, and most of Batman’s rogue’s gallery of enemies have yet to appear in the city.

Given that the show features one of the most infamous puzzly villains in history — The Riddler, aka Edward Nygma — I thought I would look back on the episode where the show’s version of the villain truly took shape.

So, in today’s blog post, we look back on season two’s “Mad Grey Dawn,” the episode that took the character beyond occasional riddles and into true Batman-style puzzly evil. (It’s worth noting that Edward Nygma’s day job is forensic scientist working for the Gotham City Police Department.)

We open in an art gallery, where a sculpture shaped like a bomb — that, curiously enough, is labeled “this is a real bomb” — rests in the center of the room. Nygma lights the fuse, chasing everyone out, then steals a painting, leaving behind a green question mark spray-painted in its place.

Detective Jim Gordon and his partner, detective Harvey Bullock, are assigned to the case. Before they go investigate, Gordon is held back by his captain, Nathaniel Barnes, who tells him an anonymous tip implicates him in a closed murder case, and Internal Affairs will be investigating.

At the art museum, they learn about the stolen painting, Mad Grey Dawn, which details a railway explosion. They discover two other, more valuable paintings were vandalized with spray-painted question marks, one by Gerard Marché and another by Henri Larue. Gordon believes the thief is trying to send a message, not trying to strike it rich.

And we have our first question: what’s the message?

[Image courtesy of EW.]

The viewer isn’t given much time to ponder it before Gordon realizes the artists ARE the clue. Marché is French for “market” and Larue is French for “the road.” They deduce that the thief is targeting the railway station on Market Street.

We then see Nygma removing a bomb in a bag from his car.

At the train station, Nygma is waiting. But Bullock and Gordon arrive as an order goes out to evacuate the building. Gordon spots a question mark spray-painted on a locker, and as soon as he does, Nygma remotely activates the timer on the bomb.

Gordon uses a crowbar to pry open the locker and get ahold of the bomb. Bullock and the other officers clear out the station and Gordon tosses the bomb before it explodes.

[Image courtesy of TV Line.]

As they investigate the bombing, they find no clues or riddles waiting for them. But Nygma is there, and he has an officer named Pinkney sign an evidence form for him. He then talks to Gordon, feeling him out on what Gordon knows about the bomber, and Gordon makes him the lead on forensics for the case.

Gordon is at a loss as to who the thief/bomber is or what he wants. But the viewer is presented with a different puzzle. We know who the bomber is, and we know he wants to destroy Jim Gordon. But how? How do these pieces we’ve seen fit together?

If you’re an attentive viewer, you’ve already spotted two big clues to Nygma’s trap.

Later, Nygma visits Officer Pinkney at home. He then asks him what you call a tavern of blackbirds, before hitting him with a crowbar.

Gordon looks over evidence photos when Bullock calls with info. They find a payphone the bomber used to trigger the bomb. Gordon heads off to check it out, discovering Pinkney’s murdered body in the apartment next door.

As he checks on the fallen officer, Captain Barnes walks in. Barnes reveals that Pinkney sent him a message, wanting to talk about Gordon. Gordon tries to explain that he was following up on a lead in the bomber case and stumbled upon Pinkney’s body, but Barnes takes him into custody.

[Image courtesy of Villains Wiki.]

Down at the station, Gordon talks to Barnes. Barnes reveals a crowbar was found with Gordon’s fingerprints. Gordon realizes it’s the crowbar from the train station. (Clue #1 from earlier.) He mentions the forensics report and Bullock’s call, but Barnes found nothing about that in the report when he checked it.

Barnes then reveals that Pinkney was the anonymous tip that reopened the murder case mentioned earlier, and he has a signed form to prove it. Amidst all these accusations, we see flashbacks of Nygma taking the crowbar, Nygma securing Pinkney’s signature at the bank (Clue #2 from earlier), and Nygma swapping out forensic reports in Bullock’s file.

Gordon has been thoroughly trapped in The Riddler’s web, and Barnes takes him in. Gordon is charged with the murder and sent to prison.

[Image courtesy of Comic Vine.]

Now, there aren’t the usual riddles to solve like you might expect (though there are plenty of riddles in earlier episodes). For puzzle fans, this episode is more about trying to unravel Nygma’s plan to stop Gordon while it unfolds. Did you manage it?

And the clues are all there, with the camera lingering on the crowbar in the bucket at the train station, and the scene of Pinkney signing the form for Nygma. It’s both a well-orchestrated frame-up and a well-constructed how-dun-it for the viewer.

And with an episode looming entitled “How the Riddler Got His Name,” I expect we’ll see more strong moments from this puzzly villain in the future.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Square One TV

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re jumping into the Wayback Machine and looking back at the math-fueled equivalent of Sesame Street: Square One TV!

[The intro to Square One TV, looking more than a little dated these days.]

This PBS show ran from 1987 to 1994 (although reruns took over in 1992), airing five days a week and featuring all sorts of math-themed programming. Armed with a small recurring group of actors, the writers and producers of Square One TV offered many clever (if slightly cheesy) ideas for presenting different mathematical concepts to its intended audience.

Whether they were explaining pie charts and percentages with a game show parody or employing math-related magic tricks with the aid of magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., the sketches were simple enough for younger viewers, but funny enough for older viewers.

In addition to musical parodies performed by the cast, several famous musicians contributed to the show as well. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bobby McFerrin, The Fat Boys, and Kid ‘n’ Play were among the guests helped explain fractions, tessellations, and other topics.

[One of the many math-themed songs featured on the show.]

Two of the most famous recurring segments on Square One TV were Mathman and Mathcourt. (Sensing a theme here?)

Mathman was a Pac-Man ripoff who would eat his way around an arcade grid until he reached a number or a question mark (depending on this particular segment’s subject).

For instance, if he came to a question mark and it revealed “3 > 2”, he could eat the ratio, because it’s mathematically correct, and then move onward. But if he ate the ratio “3 < 2”, he would be pursued by Mr. Glitch, the tornado antagonist of the game. (The announcer would always introduce Mr. Glitch with an unflattering adjective like contemptible, inconsiderate, devious, reckless, insidious, inflated, ill-tempered, shallow, or surreptitious.)

Mathcourt, on the other hand, gave us a word problem in the form of a court case, leaving the less-than-impressed district attorney and judge to establish whether the accused (usually someone much savvier at math than them) was correct or incorrect. As a sucker for The People’s Court-style shenanigans, this recurring segment was a personal favorite of mine.

But from a puzzle-solving standpoint, MathNet was easily the puzzliest part of the program. Detectives George Frankly and Kate Tuesday would use math to solve baffling crimes. Whether it was a missing house, a parrot theft, or a Broadway performer’s kidnapping, George and Kate could rely on math to help them save the day.

These segments were told in five parts (one per day for a full week), using the Dragnet formula to tackle all sorts of mathematical concepts, from the Fibonacci sequence to calculating angles of reflection and refraction.

These were essentially word problems, logic problems, and other puzzles involving logic or deduction, but with a criminal twist. Think more Law & Order: LCD than Law & Order: SVU.

Granted, given all the robberies and kidnappings the MathNet team faced, these segments weren’t aiming as young or as silly as much of Square One TV‘s usual fare, but they are easily the most fondly remembered aspect of the show for fans and casual viewers alike.

Given the topic of Tuesday’s post — the value of recreational math — it seemed only fitting to use today’s post to discuss one of the best examples of math-made-fun in television history.

Square One TV may not have been nearly as successful or as long-lasting as its Muppet-friendly counterpart, but its legacy lives on in the hearts and memories of many puzzlers these days.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Big Bang Theory

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H, to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re delving into the world of The Big Bang Theory, CBS’s runaway hit about four nerdy scientists — Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj — bumbling their way through social interactions of all sorts.

Although the show covers all sorts of activities often deemed “nerdy” — roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, comic books, cosplay, conventions, obsessive fandom, etc. — they rarely play puzzles. Usually, the closest they get are board games and card games, whether real ones like 3-D chess or fictional ones like Mystic Warlords of Ka’a.

But in episode 3 of season 7, The Scavenger Vortex, the boys and their girlfriends embarked on one of my favorite puzzly pursuits: the scavenger hunt.

Here, hunt organizer Raj lays down the rules with plenty of style:

The teams end up being the odd couples of Leonard and Bernadette (Howard’s girlfriend), Sheldon and Penny (Leonard’s girlfriend), and Howard and Amy (Sheldon’s girlfriend), allowing some new pairings for the writers to have fun with.

For instance, we’re treated to this exchange between Howard and Amy, where Amy references her unpopularity growing up:

Howard Wolowitz: Wow, you’re really good at puzzles.
Amy Farrah Fowler: I did them all the time as a kid. As my mom used to say: when you’re doing a puzzle, it’s like having a thousand friends. She was full of fun lies like that.

The game starts with a jigsaw puzzle, which quickly reveals the location of the next clue: the comic book store. (Although Sheldon forces Penny to wait while he completes the entire puzzle.)

When the competitors arrive at the comic book store, a cardboard cutout of the Riddler holds their next clue.

Riddle me this:
Arrah, Arrah, and gather ’round,
this hero is legion-bound,
He multiplies N by the number of He,
and in this room the thing you’ll see.

Sheldon instantly solves the riddle, followed by Howard and Amy, then finally by Bernadette and Leonard, highlighting how well the three teams are working together. (Either Sheldon or Penny takes the lead, depending on the task, while Howard and Amy collaborate well, and overcompetitive Bernadette basically yells at Leonard the entire time.)

Arriving at the geology lab at the university, Penny and Sheldon reveal the next puzzle: To continue on your quest, leave no stone unturned.

While they turn over various rock samples in the lab, Sheldon explains how he solved the riddle.

Arrah pointed to Jan Arrah, a member of the DC Comics superhero team The Legion of Super-Heroes, who goes by the name Element Lad. This pointed Sheldon to the Periodic Table of Elements, where he multiplied the atomic number of N, Nitrogen (7) by the atomic number of He, Helium (2), getting 14, the atomic number of Silica, which pointed him to either the geology lab or the chemistry lab.

And the final line of the riddle — “and in this room, the thing you’ll see” — pointed toward the Marvel superhero The Thing, who is made entirely of rock.

As Sheldon is showing off his impressive riddle-cracking skills, underdog Penny actually solves the current puzzle, realizing that “no stone unturned” didn’t mean the samples in the lab. It meant the Rolling Stones poster hung on the door, which she lifts to reveal map coordinates.

This sends them to a bowling alley, and then to the disused elevator shaft in Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building. A montage mentions further puzzles at the planetarium and the tar pits (and plans to attend a Neil Diamond concert for new chums Howard and Amy), before ending up in the laundry room at Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building.

Three bags of laundry await the players, and they quickly realize each bag contains only pants, except for a single shirt of Sheldon’s. A shirt with a spot on it.

Fans of the show, of course, know where their final destination — and the coin — awaits them. But when they tear apart the couch, there’s no coin.

In the end, we discover the final clue was a red herring, and Raj had slipped gold coins into everyone’s pockets earlier in the day. (Which is some pretty impressive sleight-of-hand, I must say.)

And although Raj’s big lesson — it’s getting together and playing that’s important, not the prize at the end — is lost on his fellow castmates, it really does encapsulate the best in group puzzling and gaming… the experience.

Maybe The Big Bang Theory gets puzzles after all.


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