Puzzles in Pop Culture: Person of Interest

In 2011, speculative CBS thriller Person of Interest began with the premise that a computer genius named Finch (played by Michael Emerson) had built an AI that could tell when acts of violence were about to occur in New York City. In order to intervene, he hired a former special operative named Reese (Jim Caviezel). The only information that the AI ever provides is a social security number; each episode, this leaves Finch and Reese to solve the central question: does this SSN belong to a victim of an impending crime, or a perpetrator? Do they need to be stopped, or saved?

Solving this question typically involves a veritable cornucopia of guesswork, research, hacking, plot twists, and pieces of paper taped to walls and connected by webs of string (one of my favorite TV tropes, featured in Supernatural and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Chess also features prominently, as do various secretive systems of communication. No episode is quite as likely to appeal to your inner solver, though, as season four, episode two, “Nautilus,” which aired on September 30th, 2014.

In this episode named for its chambered nautilus shell motif, Finch and Reese receive the SSN for chess grand master and college student Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard). She’s AWOL from school and chess in pursuit of a mysterious game’s prize. The game began with a post on an obscure message board: an image of a nautilus, captioned, “If you seek enlightenment, be the first to walk through the chambers.” There was data hidden in the image of a nautilus, and it sent Claire off down the rabbit hole.

Following her, Finch watches as she pulls a tab of paper from a lost dog sign, with a nautilus watermarked behind the numbers. After calling the number leads to nothing, Finch realizes: “It’s not a phone number . . . it’s multiplication.” Multiplying produces GPS coordinates, pointing to a location in Harlem.

There, a mural of seemingly random shapes (painted by artist Apache Gonzalez) covers a wall. Once again, there’s the nautilus. Back in his office, Finch studies a photo of the mural, finally recognizing it as a variation on a Bongard Problem. He explains, “This particular type of puzzle presents two sets of diagrams. The diagrams in the first set share a common feature. The blocks never overlap with the curved lines. Conversely, in the second set, the blocks do touch the curves, but there’s another common element.”

Reese interjects, “There’s a different number of blocks in each diagram.”

“Using this pattern,” Finch continues, “I can fill in the blank space with the only number of blocks left out, which is three, thus solving the puzzle, creating a sort of three-pronged arch.” Googling, Reese finds a matching photo of an arch in Central Park.

That night, Claire is near the arch, standing in traffic. When Reese interrogates her about her apparent death wish, they’re interrupted, but later, the answer comes to light. If you stand at the right point in the street, banners for “motorcycle safety month” visually blend together to show the faint image of a nautilus. Beneath the nautilus: pictures of traffic lights that Finch correctly identifies as the equivalent of Braille dots. They spell out, “184th and 3rd.”

Claire’s next found in a biker bar at 184th and 3rd, staring at a bulletin board decorated in gang logos. One features a skull with nautiluses for eyes; letters surround the skull in a seemingly random arrangement. At an otherwise dead end, Reese sits at his desk, rewriting the letters over and over, seeking a scrambled word, until Fusco (Kevin Chapman) determines that the letters refer to musical notes, forming the tune to “New York, New York.” Reese is able to deduce a location: the Empire State Building’s observation deck.

Here on out, the puzzles become simpler, less compelling; from a Doylist standpoint (referring to author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s perspective, as opposed to fictional character John Watson’s), we might assume that the writers have decided that it’s time for the plot to dominate, turning the puzzles into mere perfunctory means to an end. I’m convinced, however, by the Watsonian explanation, that Claire has sufficiently proven herself, and the AI game-master is content now to lead her by the hand.

But why the nautilus shell? In the episode, computer hacker Root (Amy Acker) refers to the nautilus as one of nature’s examples of a logarithmic spiral. It’s commonly also referred to as an example of the golden ratio, but as explained in “Math as Myth: What looks like the golden ratio is sometimes just fool’s gold,” that’s not so true. Is that they key—that the prize Claire seeks is fool’s gold?

The episode’s primary puzzles have been solved, and the series has come to an end (though it can be streamed on HBO Max). Still, this one question of the nautilus’ significance remains. What is the symbolic connection between a nautilus shell’s chambers and the “enlightenment” the game promises? Is enlightenment encoded in the logarithmic spiral, or in something more particular to the mollusk itself? I don’t have the answers, but as the nineteenth-century poem “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. shows, Person of Interest’s screenwriters were not the first to see something spiritual in the nautilus, and I doubt they’ll be the last.

In closing, I offer the following excerpt from Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative to mull over in your own pursuit of the nautilus shell’s deeper meaning:

The spiral does not belong to the nautilus shell, unless it also belongs to the whirlpool, the hurricane, the galaxy, the double helix of DNA, the tendrils of a common vine. If there are golden ratios that govern the structures of our bodies and our world, then of course there must be such shapes among the less measurable aspects of existence.


You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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.

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search. Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

The Monster at the End of This Blog

This past Sunday, Instagram user @muppethistory posted that PBS had newly released a Grover-centric game called “The Monster at the End of This Game.” Based on the classic children’s book of a similar name, the game joins assorted other Sesame Street fare such as “Show Me the Cookies,” “Ernie’s Dinosaur Daycare,” and “Oscar’s Rotten Ride” on the PBS Kids website and in the PBS Kids Game app.

Gameplay is unsurprisingly straightforward, designed as it is for small children. On most screens, challenges are as simple as clicking a glowing item; the imperative to draw a triangle notches the difficulty up barely a smidge. The most complex obstacle to reaching the game’s end (and the monster therein) is a shattered arrow that must, like a tangram, be restored to wholeness. As the player rebuilds the arrow, Grover despairs, “I did not know you were such a skilled puzzler!”

While I have no doubt that many of our readers’ puzzle skills outstrip my own, I do, at twenty-seven, have a significant edge on the game’s intended audience of preschool puzzlers. Why, then, did I find “The Monster at the End of the Game” so captivating? It wasn’t nostalgia for the fuzzy blue Grover’s picture-book antics fueling my determined clicking and dragging—I did not read “The Monster at the End of the Book” as a child. I had only the dimmest suspicion, via cultural osmosis, that a mirror would feature prominently in the conclusion, and could not say for certain if Grover would be the monster in the mirror, or if I would be.

From Lynda Barry’s Making Comics

Without this particular childhood memory on my side, Grover’s pleading that I not finish the game, his insistence that only woe and horror waited for me as I progressed past the stumbling blocks he placed in my path, reminded me of nothing so much as Lemony Snicket’s narration in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Maybe the driving factor in convincing me to keep playing wasmy uncertainty as to how exactly it would end. But maybe it was a different branch of childhood nostalgia, fondness for the perilous problems plaguing the Baudelaire children in Snicket’s series.

In 2004, HarperCollins released a collection of puzzles called The Puzzling Puzzles: Bothersome Games Which Will Bother Some People, based on the Baudelaires’ trials and tribulations and framed as a training manual for a secret organization from the series. According to the Snicket Fandom wiki, many of the puzzles are designed to be unsolvable, and the letter to the reader from Snicket himself describes the book as “distressing,” and “frustrating,” the polar opposite of “The Monster at the End of This Game” (at least, if you’re outside Sesame Street’s target demographic).

Before signing off, Snicket writes, “I have dedicated my life to unraveling the puzzles that surround the doomed Baudelaire orphans. Why should you?”

Violet and Klaus Baudelaire in the Netflix adaptation of ASoUE

Why indeed? Why try to solve the unsolvable? Why try to solve the extremely easily solvable? When the story is so good, why not try? Who can resist a compelling narrative, especially one brimming with pathos and puzzles, mystery and monsters? Whether the primary focus is on Muppets or murders, whether the monster is Grover, Count Olaf, or myself, I always want to reach the end. I’ll untie any rope, click any brick, trace any triangle—if it means gazing into the mirror at any good story’s conclusion.


If you also love the intersection of stories and puzzles, our Book Smarts, Movie Madness, and TV Time Daily POP puzzles are probably right up your alley! 

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search. Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

The Sestina and You

Last week, we began to explore a rich riddle together: “How is a poem like a puzzle?” We discussed a couple of important answers, but overlooked the immediately obvious answer that both begin with “P” and have—at least, for a significant portion of English-speakers—two syllables. This may seem overly superficial, but those similarities are nothing to sneeze at! When we’re talking about puzzles and poems, letters and length are deeply important.

With regard to syllables, our post discussed the puzzly limitations of forms like haiku, which become increasingly challenging as you write. Even more challenging than the haiku is the sestina, a French form that requires expert-level problem-solving skills.

Typically unrhymed (though rhyming would only add an extra fun brain-bending element), a sestina is a thirty-nine-line poem made up of six six-line stanzas plus a final three-line stanza known as an “envoi.” The same six line-ending words appear in each stanza, though mixed up like a Boggle cube into a different, strict order in each stanza. If we label the last word of each of the first six lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, then the last word of each of the stanzas afterward follows this pattern:

Stanza two: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3

Stanza three: 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5
Stanza four: 5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4
Stanza five: 4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2
Stanza six: 2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1

The final envoi of three lines must contain all six of the ending words. Three of the words will come at the end of the lines, and the other three words will be contained within.

Thus, once the six ending words are established in the first stanza, the ending words of the following stanzas are set in stone, turning the exercise of writing poetry into an elaborate game of fill-in-the-blank. The more wedded you are to having your poem make a lick of sense, the more crucial it becomes to tap into your puzzle brain to determine what jigsaw pieces of language could possibly go inside the parameters established by the “corner pieces” that are these ending words.

Sestina diagram via http://aka-arcadia.blogspot.com/2009/03/sestina-and-double-sestina.html. What other brainteasery poetic limits might we invent if we start placing numbers on different labyrinthine shapes?

Sestina examples that follow the rules of the puzzle:

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape by John Ashbery

A Miracle for Breakfast by Elizabeth Bishop

Forage Sestina by Marilyn Hacker

And one sestina example that breaks them:

Deleting Names (A Decaying Sestina) by Lawrence Schimel

Even if you don’t consider yourself a poet, if word puzzles are your jam, we invite you to try your hand at a sestina, and watch as it unlocks the puzzler inside!


First—consider warming up your verbal, puzzling centers by taking our crosswords or word searches for a spin!

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search. Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

Puzzles, Poems, Problem-Solving, & Productivity

How is a poem like a puzzle? That question’s easier to answer than the Mad Hatter’s classic “How is a raven like a writing desk?” From crosswords to cryptograms, many beloved puzzles do, if nothing else, resemble poems in their mutual wordiness. However, some forms of poetry are more puzzly than others—compare a sprawling collection of free and blank verse like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to the concise machinery of a syllabically limited haiku, the boundaries of which are as strict as the edges of a crossword puzzle.

Like Nancy, though, you can always break the boundaries of form to create new meaning.

When you start to write a haiku, your possibilities are wide-open; with each word you set down, though, the potential choices for what might follow narrow. In effect, your “word bank” shrinks, and if three syllables already occupy the first line, then any words longer than two syllables are ineligible for that line’s continuation. The poet’s puzzling brain must kick into action, considering words for their dimensions and how they might lock into place with the words directly alongside them.

Haikus aren’t the only poetic forms that require this type of geometric thinking. Similarly brainteasery in their construction are sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas. Concrete poems take the shape of objects relevant to their contents, and erasure poetry—much like a word seek—highlights hidden messages by winnowing the chaos of a pre-existing text.

An erasure poem by Jen Bervin, made from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

What about a more sprawling, less tightly organized work like “The Waste Land,” then? Beyond the wordiness it has in common with cryptograms et al, is it left out of our riddle’s answer? Roddy Howland Jackson, in the recent essay, “Beastly Clues: T. S. Eliot, Torquemada, and the Modernist Crossword,” appears to argue that no, such works are very much like puzzles.

Jackson takes us back to the 1920s, when “The Waste Land” first appeared in print, and modernist poetry and puzzles alike were derided by critics. He locates “a question asked about labour and idleness in this period: are crosswords and difficult poems worth the efforts required to elicit literary pleasure and linguistic revitalisation? Or merely a waste of time?”

As a poet and puzzler, this question resonates with me a century later. Swimming in the high-pressure waters of hustle culture makes us highly sensitive to the terror of “wasting time,” as in doing anything that doesn’t build our personal brands. Writing and reading poetry that isn’t tidily instagrammable? Solving puzzles that aren’t social media fads? By hustle culture’s standards, both of these things are wastes of time.

So how is a poem like a puzzle? Both present us with opportunities to take back our time, to carve out pockets of our days where we exert mental energy purely for the joy of thinking. Instead of being just a bullet point on your resume, your problem-solving skills can be part of how you resist the pressure to always have your nose to the grindstone.

Next week, we’ll encourage you to find joy in poetry by more closely examining one particular puzzly form. In the meantime . . .


You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

Horse of a Different Color, Posts of a Different Blogger

Please briefly pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

You may remember that when long-time blogger Glenn stepped down from posting at the beginning of this year, he assured you all that it was time “for a new voice to take over.” Obviously, his prediction came true, and it’s been fun these past few weeks, regaling you with discussions of Wordle, a biblical adventure, and tarot cards. Maybe you’ve wondered, however, exactly whose voice you’re hearing. I think it’s time we get to know each other. This week, I pull back the curtain and reveal your new Wizard of Blog.  

The Wizard of Oz revealed his full name to be Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs, but I’m going to go easy on you; you can just call me Rae. Puzzle fans are often excited to learn my name, pointing out that RAE is a common crossword entry. When you come across clues such as [“Call Me Maybe” singer Carly ___ Jepsen], [“Wayne’s World” actress ___ Dawn Chong], [Rap duo ____ Sremmurd], or countless others, you’ll already know the answer.

In addition to handling social media here at PuzzleNation, I act as our Editorial Assistant and as an occasional writer of Daily POP clues. Previously, I worked for Dell Magazines, writing clues for a range of crossword titles in addition to assisting the editors of Dell’s mystery and science fiction publications. Although my own writing is strictly nonfiction and poetry—I’m currently an MFA candidate in both disciplines—I am emotionally committed to genre fiction, mystery and sci-fi especially. You can expect to see those two genres making appearances on the blog in the future!

Your blogger in his natural habitat.

Outside of work, I’m a Simpsons buff and general television nerd, a voraciously omnivorous reader, a fan of superhero and heist media, and a painter. Wordplay, problem-solving, and board games are a few of my favorite things (the classic Clue is my favorite of the latter). As you may have inferred from blog posts thus far, I do read tarot, and yes, I try to solve Wordle right on the dot of midnight, turning to Queerdle immediately after (the artificial stress of Absurdle is a sometimes snack).

So what else, exactly, do I plan to bring to this digital table? The future holds a broad spectrum of posts, examining poetry and literature, art and music, TV shows and movies, video games, board games, and the scientific and historical sides of puzzles and games. Human interest pieces are close to my heart too—the puzzle and gaming worlds are full of fascinating people doing creative, groundbreaking things, and I can’t wait to spend time connecting with some of those individuals and bringing their stories to your screens.

On that note: it’s your turn! I would love to hear more about who’s reading. And if there’s anything in particular you’re interested in seeing on the blog, don’t be afraid to ask the Wizard for what you want.


One thing the Wizard can offer you now is delightful deals on puzzles!

They can be found on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!