Consider the Pencil…

We spend a lot of time talking about pencil-and-paper puzzles here on the blog, but it’s rare for us to focus on the “pencil” part of that pairing.

Whether you prefer a regular pencil or a mechanical pencil for your puzzling, there’s no denying that having an eraser is a pretty comforting feature. (Although there is a certain confidence exuded by solving in pen.)

But how much do you actually know about everything that goes into making that classic solving tool?

Well, The New York Times has you covered. They recently posted an in-depth look behind the scenes of the production process at the General Pencil Company, and the photographs alone, like the one featured above, are fascinating.

From the article:

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

The vivid, full-color photos in the gallery are accompanied by thoughtful musings on the writing process itself, making the article a quick, thoughtful read that’s worth your time.

Here’s one more snippet that stuck with me:

In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion… When you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.

That excerpt about simplicity reminds me of a classic exchange from The West Wing:

Leo McGarry: We spent millions of dollars developing a pen for the astronauts that would work in zero gravity. Know what the Russians did?
Toby Ziegler: Used a pencil?
Leo McGarry: They used a pencil.

And although that story about millions spent on a space pen has been thoroughly debunked, the point remains.

Pencils get the job done.

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Puzzly Romance Strikes Again!

For some reason, people simply do not associate puzzles with romance. And that’s ridiculous.

In this blog alone, we’ve documented several examples of puzzly romance, including several proposals delivered with the help of our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles.

Pop culture also has its fair share of romantic moments where puzzles play a huge part. The West Wing shared a moment of hilarious, quiet domesticity between the president and the first lady where a crossword was involved. Parks and Rec celebrated Valentine’s Day with a puzzle-filled scavenger hunt.

And last week Brooklyn Nine-Nine — already familiar to PuzzleNationers for their seesaw puzzle episode — added its own unforgettable moment of puzzly romance to the pile of evidence.

[Image courtesy of Indiewire.]

The episode in question, entitled “HalloVeen,” has the officers and detectives of the 99th Precinct engaging in their annual Halloween heist to determine who is the craftiest and most brilliant member of the squad.

As the players double-cross, triple-cross, and outmaneuver each other with increasingly ridiculous and circuitous plans to acquire this year’s MacGuffin — a championship belt in the style of pro wrestling — both the players and the viewers are surprised by one player’s long con…

Jake has used the heist to propose to his girlfriend, fellow detective Amy.

Although there’s a lot of clever plotting in this episode, that’s not the puzzly moment. That comes later, as the characters each share a story explaining when they planted the idea of proposing in Jake’s head.

Jake replies that none of them are correct. It turns out, it was a quiet moment at home with Amy that convinced him:

[Image courtesy of Heroes and Heartbreakers.]

It’s not dramatic or overscripted or full of fireworks. It’s an everyday moment with the woman he loves. It’s nerdy and funny and silly and idiosyncratic. It’s simple. It feels genuine.

All thanks to a typo in a crossword.

Ain’t love grand?

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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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Hmmm… 4 letter word. “Pointers.” .. Oh! “Tips!”

A few weeks from now, we’ll be celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle, and in celebration, PuzzleNation Blog will be focusing on crosswords for the entire month of December!

And what better way to start than highlighting some tips for crossword solving?

Whether you’re diving right in with a Sunday New York Times puzzle or just picking up the Monday puzzle in your local paper (or the puzzle on one of those page-a-day calendars), here are some helpful hints to sharpen your solving skills.

–Puzzles in the newspaper tend to get harder as the week goes on. Saturday puzzles are usually the most difficult, so if you’re just starting out, Monday and Tuesday are excellent puzzles to try out.

–Whether you’re solving with pencil or pen, write softly. This will make it easier to erase mistakes or to write over them, depending on your writing implement of choice. Newspapers and puzzle magazines aren’t made from the hardiest paper, and it’s easy to tear a hole with an eraser unintentionally, or fill up a tiny square with one or two false starts.

–Don’t be afraid to use the margin to list possible answers before committing to filling in the grid. Some clues lend themselves to multiple interpretations — “cleave” could be a clue for “cling” or “split,” for instance — and sometimes it helps to keep potential answers nearby to be eliminated later.

–Remember, you don’t have to start at 1 Across and work your way through the list consecutively. Let your eyes jump around the clue list. Look for something you know.

–Look for quotation marks and blank spaces. Quotation marks usually indicate film, movie, or song titles, and blanks often involve completing titles or phrases. (A clue with quotation marks AND a blank is a prime candidate for early gimmes.)

–Similarly, keep your eyes peeled for hints within clues. A foreign word in a clue indicates a foreign word answer. An abbreviation hints at an abbreviated answer.

–Verb tense can be helpful as well. “Broke down” is past tense, so an -ed ending is likely. “Breaking down” implies an -ing ending, while “breaks” could mean an -s ending. (Be careful, though. Craftier constructors may use phrases as answers, so “appends” could have an answer like “tacks on.”)

–Keep an eye out for question marks, since these indicate that a pun, joke, or some form of wordplay is afoot. (For examples of some cunning clues, check out this collection of constructors’ favorite clues.)

From The West Wing:

Jed Bartlet: Three letters. “It may be bitter.” “Tea,” right?
Abbey Bartlet: “It may be bitter?”
Jed: Yeah.

Abbey: “End,” you idiot. “Bitter end.”

–Once you’ve placed a word you feel confident about, check the words nearby, especially the clues for words crossing your entry. Just one or two placed letters can make a big difference when figuring out other entries. Similarly, focusing on an individual section instead of the entire grid can make a puzzle less daunting.

–As you grow accustomed to solving crosswords, you’ll probably discover some words you only encounter while puzzle-solving. We refer to these words as “crosswordese,” and while many constructors have made a concentrated effort to eliminate crosswordese entries whenever possible, some invariably slip through the cracks. Familiarizing yourself with the worst offenders is often helpful.

–Keep solving!

It’s easy to get frustrated, especially if two proper nouns are crossing, or if you haven’t been able to suss out the theme of a given puzzle just yet, but don’t give up! Take a break for a few minutes, or invite someone to solve with you. Say a few clues out loud and see if that sparks anything.

Good luck and happy solving to you!

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The West Wing

In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve recapped classic episodes of M*A*S*H and MacGyver, as well as the numerous puzzly plotlines that’ve been featured on The Simpsons over the years.

But when it comes to erudite, hilarious references to solving crosswords, you’d be hard-pressed to find sharper puzzle-infused dialogue than the moments featured in episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s landmark political drama The West Wing.

Set in the West Wing of the White House, the show focused on the lives of the president and his advisors and staffers as they navigated political situations at home and abroad. To this day it’s a regular feature on most reviewers’ lists of the top television shows of all-time.

And in a show noted for sparkling wit and all kinds of intellectual wordplay, it’s hardly a surprise that the New York Times Crossword was referenced in the very first episode.

In the video below, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is frustrated with the Times for misspelling the name of Muammar Qaddafi, and his attempts to contact the editor of the Times Crossword and get it corrected are stymied at every turn:

The White House staff’s dubious relationship with crosswords is revisited in the season 3 episode Dead Irish Writers. This time around, as the president’s wife Abbey prepares for both a birthday party and a potential ruling on her medical license, the President busies himself with a crossword in his own inimitable style:

Beyond the spirited humor of both scenes, there’s a marvelous undercurrent of how smart people react when their intellectual superiority is challenged. Leo responds by trying to correct what he sees as an egregious error, while the President bends the rules to suit his own expectations.

In addition to being a wonderful launchpad for the show’s signature rapid-fire banter, it’s a simple and effective way of shedding light on how each character views the world and his role in it. (With writing and direction this layered and engaging, it’s easy to see how The West Wing earned an astounding 26 Emmy Awards!)

Even as subplots in a much-larger narrative, these puzzles added color and personality to scenes that took us inside the minds of these characters. Pretty impressive for crosswords that are only mentioned briefly.

Puzzles… is there anything they can’t do? =)

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at, or contact us here at the blog!