Puzzles in Pop Culture: Futurama

Not so long ago, I wrote a post about cryptography in the real world, highlighting moments where codebreaking made a difference in crime solving and espionage, and sometimes changed the course of history.

And while the encryptions featured in today’s entry aren’t quite as world-changing, they just as interesting.

I’m talking about the alien languages that were featured in the background of the animated television show Futurama.

At least two ciphers have been employed by the writers and animators of the show — a third is rumored to have appeared in the fourth season of the show, but there hasn’t been confirmation of that — and they’ve proven to be an engaging Easter egg for puzzle fans.

The first is called Alien Language One, or Alienese, and it appeared in the background of the show from the pilot episode onward. It’s a simple one-to-one code, with symbols for all 26 letters and 10 digits in standard English. (Supposedly it was solved by some enterprising puzzlers within a half-hour of the show’s premiere.)

A second, far more complex encryption started appearing during the show’s second season, and it’s called Alien Language Two, or Alienese II, and it’s based on an autokey cipher.

Autokey ciphers are more involved than a standard encryption, because there’s no one-to-one organizational structure. Instead, the symbol for a given letter or number can change based on the symbol that precedes it.

I’ll let the folks at the Futurama Wiki explain:

Each symbol has a numerical value. To decode a message, the first symbol’s value is translated directly into a character (0=’A’, 1=’B’, and so on). For the remaining letters, you subtract the previous symbol’s numerical value. If the result is less than zero, you add 26. Then that number is converted into a character as before.

This is some high-level puzzling, considering it’s a background joke-delivery system on an animated show. (But, considering the show does jokes about Schrodinger and throwaway gags based on mathematical principles like taxicab numbers, I’m not at all surprised.)

Of course, those puzzle-lovers at The Simpsons couldn’t help but get in on the fun, using Alienese as a background gag in a reference to the show Lost.

The masterminds at Futurama are definitely puzzlers at heart, and more than worthy of recognition in the Puzzles in Pop Culture library.

Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Simpsons (revisited!)

In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve recapped a classic episode of M*A*S*H and delved into the rich puzzling history of MacGyver.

Today, however, I’m returning to the ever-giving well of puzzly goodness provided by that unstoppable animated juggernaut, The Simpsons.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the show’s hilarious ventures in the worlds of brain-teasers and crosswords, but I neglected one shining example of puzzleriffic fun in Season 20 episode “Gone Maggie Gone.” (Oddly enough, the same season that featured “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words.”)

In an episode that playfully melds elements of Gone Baby Gone, Ratatouille, and The Goonies, while delightfully skewering National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code, Homer accidentally leaves Maggie on the doorstep of a convent. When the nuns take her in and Homer can’t retrieve her, Lisa infiltrates the convent, discovering a series of elaborate puzzles that may lead to both Maggie and a jewel hidden in Springfield.

The puzzles take center stage early in this episode, as Homer encounters his own version of the cabbage, wolf, and goat river-crossing puzzle — in this case, featuring Maggie, Santa’s Little Helper, and a colorful bottle of rat poison. (His attempt to solve this puzzle is how Maggie ends up in the convent in the first place.)

Lisa’s first clue is to “seek God with heart and soul,” which leads her to play “Heart and Soul” on the church organ. After a ridiculously overelaborate Rube Goldberg device opens up, the next clue tells her to seek the biggest man-made ring in Springfield.

After a red herring and a stop for some goofy exposition from amateur puzzle-solvers Comic Book Guy and Principal Skinner, Lisa deduces that the biggest ring in Springfield is, in fact, the word RING in the Hollywood-esque Springfield Sign in the hills, and the adventurous trio sets off.

Hidden on the giant letters of the Springfield Sign is the message “Great crimes kill holy sage,” which Lisa dutifully anagrams into the message “Regally, the rock gem is Lisa.” Naturally, she does so just in time for Mr. Burns (the requisite shadowy Freemason figure) to emerge and take everyone back to the convent.

When she arrives, the nuns tell her Maggie is in fact the gem they’ve been seeking, and they re-anagram the message to read, “It’s really Maggie, Sherlock.” A pretty impressive feat of wordplay, I’d say.

(Naturally, Marge enters the scene here and sets everyone to rights by taking Maggie home. Bart sits on the throne of the gem child just vacated by Maggie, and ends up transforming the world into a nightmarish hellscape, as you’d expect.)

With elements of logic puzzles, brain-teasers, and anagram goodness, this episode is a treat for puzzlers of all ages, plus it’s hysterical to boot. The Simpsons excels at not simply including puzzles in their stories, but making the puzzles the linchpin of the story, something to drive the characters to learn and grow and challenge themselves.

While this episode was a little goofier and a little less heartfelt than “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words,” it remains a worthwhile entry in the Puzzles in Pop Culture library.

Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Simpsons

From Stanley’s love of crosswords on The Office to the clever conundrums constantly conjured by the Riddler in various iterations of Batman, puzzles have played roles both big and small in numerous TV shows and films.

But for my money, few shows have made puzzles the centerpiece of storyline development and family interaction quite like The Simpsons.

The first episode that comes to mind — and my personal favorite — is season 9’s Lisa the Simpson.

In the episode, Lisa is stumped by a brain teaser and begins to worry about her intelligence, a concern that is only exacerbated by Grandpa’s revelation of the Simpson Gene, a genetic quirk that caused Homer and Bart’s descent from academic achievement to hilarious idiocy.

In the end, of course, Lisa discovers she’ll be just fine — the defective gene is on the Y chromosome, so only male Simpsons are afflicted — and she conquers the brain teaser.

Puzzly themes would continue to crop up in the show from time to time.

For instance, Homer discovers a secret acrostic message from his mother in the newspaper in season 15’s My Mother the Carjacker. But most of the puzzle-centric goodness centered around Lisa.

She indulged in palindromic fun with fellow Mensa members in season 10’s They Saved Lisa’s Brain, as well as an anagramming game in the season 6 classic Lisa’s Rival.

(That’s when I first learned that Alec Guinness anagrams into Genuine Class.)

But puzzles wouldn’t again take center stage until season 20’s episode Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words.

In the episode, Lisa quickly becomes a crossword fiend, solving all the puzzles she can and eventually entering the Crossword City Tournament.

Trouble brews when Homer bets against her in the championship round, and their relationship fractures.

This was a real watershed moment in synergy for the show, since they somehow managed to convince The New York Times to publish the same puzzle in the paper that Homer uses to apologize to Lisa.

(You can click here to see the full puzzle.)

Homer’s hidden message runs along the diagonal, and it’s a brilliantly unobtrusive trick. I’m sure some solvers never even noticed the tie-in. (The puzzle didn’t reference The Simpsons or the episode in any other way.)

Puzzlemaster Merl Reagle created the puzzle, and Will Shortz oversaw the project. Both also appeared in the episode. (Reagle also created the word crossings for the hopscotch puzzle pictured above.)

It’s a real treat to see puzzles incorporated into a narrative like this. Instead of a time-killer or a mere passing interest, they become linchpins of each story. The puzzles create conflict, drive epiphanies, and bring people together.

It’s a testament to the power of puzzles in pop culture. Plus, they’re just a buttload of fun.

Hope you enjoyed this little (animated) trip down memory lane. Until next time, keep calm, puzzle on, and I’ll catch you again soon.