Women of Letters: Doing Good with Crosswords!

The puzzle community is awesome. I have chronicled numerous examples of this fact during my time writing this blog, and yet, I am endlessly stunned by the generosity and thoughtfulness embodied by so many puzzlers I know, as well as others I hope to meet in the future.

Today, I have the privilege of sharing another marvelous charitable puzzly project with my fellow PuzzleNationers.

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Patti Varol, alongside constructors Angela Halsted and Amy Reynaldo, assembled a who’s who of top constructors for a project called Women of Letters.

The idea is as simple as it is marvelous.

If you donate to one of the worthy causes pictured below — including Girls Who Code, Sanctuary for Families, Girls Not Brides, Planned Parenthood, and others — you can send a copy of your charitable receipt to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com.

And in return, you’ll receive a PDF loaded with 18 pages of original puzzles by topnotch constructors like Robin Stears, Lynn Lempel, C.C. Burnikel, Laura Braunstein, Tracy Bennett, Andrea Carla Michaels, and more!

It’s a little extra incentive to do a bit of good in the world, plus it highlights the hard work and boundless creativity of women in the puzzle community. Kudos to everyone involved in this venture.

[You can click here for full details on Women of Letters.]


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Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Robin Stears

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Robin Stears!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I’ve been constructing crossword puzzles for about 25 years, since my first daughter was born and I had to figure out a way to work from home. I’ve always enjoyed solving puzzles, ever since I was a child. Constructing puzzles is even more fun.

My puzzles have been in many Penny Press and Dell magazines – they’re my favorites – and also in The LA Times, Games Magazine, and of course, the Daily POP Crosswords app. The restrictions, like not being able to use any crosswordese or even slightly difficult words, adds a bit of a challenge, which of course makes it even more fun!

Personally, I prefer easier-to-medium puzzles rather than very difficult ones. I think puzzle solvers should have a good time and maybe learn something new. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to finish a crossword – and there’s nothing more satisfying than filling in that final square with the very last answer.

I want everyone who solves one of my puzzles to be able to finish it and enjoy that feeling of a job well done. And, at least once while they’re solving, I’d like them to look up and say, “Wow. That’s cool. I never knew that.”

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

The best thing about Daily POP Crosswords is what a joy they are to create. I’m a pop culture fan from way back in the day when I used to read comic books and go to Star Trek conventions, and I still love watching movies and TV shows, listening to music, reading books, and checking out the latest fashions. I still go to two or three pop culture conventions every year.

Recently, I decided to go back to college to finish the degree I started thirty-some years ago, and I find that hanging out with young people helps keep my pop culture knowledge up-to-date. Between classes, we hang out and spill the tea, and mentally I’m taking notes for future crossword puzzles.

Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

I don’t have a particular theme day that I love above all others – I love all kinds of pop culture. I have so much fun deciding who or what is “worthy” of a crossword tribute, and then researching why they’re famous. I do like to celebrate big anniversaries, like the fifty-year birthday that both Hawaii Five-O and Laugh-In will celebrate next year.

So far, my favorite Daily POP Crosswords puzzle is the one I made for Thanksgiving about the Macy’s parade balloons. I learned so much about the balloons, and I was delighted to pass along all the trivia I discovered to my fellow parade fans. I hope everyone enjoyed solving it as much as I enjoyed constructing it.


A huge thank you to Robin for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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Prodigies and Puzzly Minds

I spend a lot of time here talking about puzzly minds, but I’ve never really defined what I mean by “puzzly mind.” Basically, to me, a puzzly mind is one that enjoys puzzles, one that has a knack for unraveling puzzles that might baffle or deter others.

But defining what makes up a puzzly mind — what qualities, what abilities, that sort of thing — is hard, because there are so many kinds of puzzles in the world, and many of them require different skill sets, even if all of those skill sets still fit under the umbrella of puzzly minds.

For instance, deduction puzzles require different skills than crosswords do, since deduction puzzles usually work off the information given in the puzzle (and extrapolating within that information set), whereas crosswords require you to pull in your own knowledge to solve the clues and fill the grid. There’s obviously some overlap, but they remain quite different forms of puzzle-solving.

And that’s just two types of puzzles. Spot-the-difference puzzles differ from math puzzles, which differ from mechanical puzzles, which differ from strategy puzzles. They all require specific skills, particular solving styles, and oftentimes, an approach tailored to that sort of puzzle.

Even if you’re someone who immerses yourself in the puzzle world, as I do, you’re not necessarily going to be equipped to tackle every form of puzzle. I’m a decent crossword solver, a good hand at brain teasers and logic problems, and quick when it comes to Fill-In-style puzzles, but I’m not the strongest four-in-a-row puzzler, nor am I a deft hand at encryptions.

As it turns out, this is true of minds other than ones found under the “puzzly” umbrella. It applies to child prodigies as well.

Science writer, author, and all-around geek-culture expert Garth Sundem recently wrote about the curious differences between musical prodigies, art prodigies, and math prodigies, and his post revealed some unexpected results.

For instance, math prodigies and music prodigies basically tie when it comes to IQ tests or studies of quantitative reasoning. (Actually, it seems that music prodigies edge out math prodigies when it comes to that sort of pattern recognition!)

They’re also neck-and-neck when it comes to visual spatial skills. But, oddly enough, both groups test AHEAD of art prodigies in that area. Which surprised the heck out of me! You’d think that artists who bring such marvelous works to life would be stronger visual reasoners than musicians and mathematicians.

This applies most strongly to the concept of mentally rotating shapes in their minds.

From Sundem’s post:

The authors write that, “Talented young artists [may] perceive objects differently than less talented young artists and use figurative processes which focus on attention to detailed surface features.” Less talented young artists are trapped in the literal, but it seems that art prodigies are largely unbound by the way things should look. Apparently, when a math prodigy rotates a shape in his or her mind, he or she gets a rotated shape – but when an art prodigy rotates the same shape, he or she gets…Dali!

Just as puzzlers bring different skill sets to bear when cracking their favorite puzzles, prodigies wield different abilities when excelling at various forms of creative expression, be it artistic, musical, or mathematical.

Sundem summed it up nicely when he concluded that “art prodigies can’t visualize shapes with precision and math prodigies are no better than music prodigies at seeing the consequences of numbers.”

And that got me wondering about the brains of some of the puzzlers I know. Do their particular skill sets or interests outside of puzzles reflect on their puzzly strengths and weaknesses?

As you’d expect, there are plenty with majors or strong interests in English (like constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley), history, languages (like constructor Matt Gaffney), and literature in the puzzle biz, particularly crosswords and other word-based puzzles. Several who came from economics, chemistry, or science backgrounds tend to be strong math and deduction solvers.

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Robin Stears once told me, “If you think about it, math is just one ginormous puzzle that needs to be solved.”

But, again, like Sundem found with the child prodigies, there were some unexpected connections lurking in the data. I know several musicians who enjoy puzzles, and they tend to be strong math solvers as well. (Which supports the test results above that found little statistical difference in quantitative reasoning between math prodigies and music prodigies.)

Obviously, I need to cast a wider net amongst puzzlers to back up my theory, but I suspect these correlations will only strengthen with more input from puzzlers. I wonder what other curious connections are waiting to be found, currently concealed beneath that all-too-convenient umbrella of “puzzly minds.”


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Star Wars 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 today, we’re returning to the subject of Star Wars!

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens hits theaters this week, and I thought I’d offer up a few links and some puzzly fun in the spirit of this much-beloved franchise.

#1: Google

Do yourself a favor and go to Google right now and type “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away” into the search bar. You will not be disappointed.

#2: A Star Wars StearsWords!

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Robin Stears created this great Star Wars-fueled puzzle last year, and it’s a perfect way to celebrate Star Wars in a puzzly way. The loose grid construction allows for a lot more themed fun to be had!

#3: Holiday Special Trivia!

Our friends at Puzzopallo noted that it’s only appropriate for a new Star Wars film to open during the holidays, since Star Wars has something of a tradition with holiday releases.

They’re referring, of course, to the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, which infamously featured a Wookiee holiday called Life Day, some hit ’70s musical acts, and some dubious comedy from Harvey Korman.

And they’ve come up with some Holiday Special trivia for ambitious Star Wars fans!

#4: Star Wars Riddles!

Naturally, I couldn’t resist throwing out some Star Wars-themed brain teasers for you to unravel. Can you puzzle out the answers to the four riddles and poem below?

1. Why do doctors make the best Jedi?

2. What do Gungans put things in?

3. What do you call the website Chewbacca started that gives out Imperial secrets?

4. What side of an Ewok has the most hair?

5. (written in Yoda-speak, it appears)

Atop my head, a crown I bear,
Nearby my crown, two guards uphold,
Life I devour, metals I dissect,
When seen I am, all life trembles,
If opposed I am, a thousand spears rain,
When cornered I am, hornets I unleash,
Yet controlled by thousands I am.
What am I?

Hopefully, you’ll enjoy one or all of these puzzly Star Wars treats! May the Force be with you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: New Years Resolutions edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, with the new year freshly started, it seems all too appropriate to return to the subject of new years resolutions.

Last year, I asked several prominent puzzlers about their resolutions for 2014. It’s one year later, so let’s see how they did!

Constructor Robin Stears resolved “to interact more with puzzle fans…, to attend some crossword tournaments and trivia nights and spend some time getting to know the contestants and finding out what kinds of puzzles they like.” How did that resolution go for her?

Well, I really missed the boat on that resolution. There weren’t any crossword tournaments in my area, and I couldn’t convince my local librarian to host one. But thanks to PuzzleNation, I’ve been able to keep up with what’s new in the puzzle world. The hottest thing this year was the emoji; in fact, emoji were so popular, I made up a bunch of emoji crossword puzzles.

And since I couldn’t attend any tournaments in person, I scoured the Internet for puzzle blogs and puzzle forums, and still managed to interact with puzzle fans in the virtual world. Puzzle fans are the nicest people, and they always have great ideas.

Constructor (and field marshal of The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project) David Steinberg resolved to “finish the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project’s litzing stage and to construct more Sunday crosswords.” How did that resolution go for him?

The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project’s litzing stage is now complete. We’ve litzed all the available puzzles–16,077 of them! We’re missing 148 puzzles, though, most of which weren’t published in New York because of newspaper strikes.

The proofreading stage is well on its way — 24 years of proofread puzzles are now up on XWord Info. A two-month proofreading contest is currently in progress, and we’re almost done proofreading the 1969 puzzles. I’ve also been busy constructing more Sunday crosswords, one of which was recently accepted by the Times.

Puzzle poet Peter Valentine resolved to “get up early and finish the poem before anyone else is awake.” How did that resolution go?

Sadly I did terribly on that resolution and can probably count on one hand the number of times that happened. Nevertheless, still keeping up with them daily when kids are in school! (Holidays are a wash.)

Baffledazzle creator Rachel Happen made several resolutions for 2014. How did she do?

1. Exercise brain as much as body — I’d give myself an 11 out of 10 on this one. The first Baffledazzle Kickstarter campaign was a problem-solving obstacle course that demanded all sorts of brain agility! Now that I’m post-campaign, I’m back in puzzle research/development mode and maxing out my library card again. So yes, mission accomplished there.

2. Make puzzles for friends / family birthday gifts — I’d give myself 7 out of 10! I did make a ton of custom puzzly things for gifts though I missed a few months when I was in the thick of Baffledazzle production. Next year, summer-birthday-friends, there will be puzzles for all!

3. Try a new puzzle / puzzly game each month — Oh man I get a 3 out of 10 for this one, but maybe a 5 out of 10 for intention!! My pile of Springboks [jigsaw puzzles] has only gotten taller… sigh. 😉

4. Make puzzles the new black — Ah, ∞ out of 10. This one’s a life-long mission!! Full speed ahead into another year of puzzling!


What about you, fellow puzzlers? Did you make any resolutions this year, puzzly or not? Let me know! I’d love to hear about them!

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Girls Make Games (and Puzzles, too!)

[Alicia Crawford, winner of Sony Online Entertainment’s 2011 Gamers in Real Life (G.I.R.L.) Scholarship, aimed at bringing more women into the field of video game production and design. Photo courtesy of Sony Online Entertainment, by way of Wired.com.]

I am a huge proponent of seeing creative people succeed. From Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns to intrepid puzzlesmiths and game designers striking out on their own for the first time, I am always seeking out new stories about puzzlers enriching the world with their own creations.

So when Fred, Director of Digital Games here at PuzzleNation, passed along this link about Girls Make Games, it was right up my alley.

Girls Make Games organizes summer camp-style workshops to introduce girls to video gaming, both playing them and designing their own. It’s a very worthy cause that ties perfectly into ongoing efforts across the world to encourage more women to pursue STEM paths.

STEM education, for the uninitiated, is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, four key components to competing effectively in today’s global marketplace. Girls Make Games is a wonderful way to introduce girls to STEM courses and to add important, fresh voices to the world of video games.

[The “Nothing to Prove” video by the band The Doubleclicks.
A musical reminder that nonsense like the “fake geek girl” myth is
just one of the reasons why we need programs like Girls Make Games.]

And while it’s not reported as often as the gender gap in video-game design or considered as controversial a topic, there’s a similar disparity in the presence of female constructors and editors of crosswords among the major outlets. Ben Tausig published an article last year on the subject, and raised some intriguing points.

I admit, I was surprised by ratio of male-to-female constructors in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other big outlets, but that’s probably because I’m most familiar with the editors and puzzlers at Penny/Dell Puzzles, where the women easily outnumber the men.

Maybe this means the puzzle world could use a program along the same lines as Girls Make Games. With so many terrific puzzlers out there, from Kathy Matheson, Robin Stears, and Deb Amlen to Patti Varol, Leslie Billig, and Baffledazzle creator Rachel Happen, there are plenty of great role models out there for aspiring constructors.

I can’t wait to see what these new voices come up with.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!