Celebrity Constructors Galore!

[Bill Clinton enjoys a puzzle and a snack. Image courtesy of The New York Times.]

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of collaborations between established constructors and celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought with culinary wordplay.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

None other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

Tuesday, June 6th saw musician Lisa Loeb duet with crossword gentleman and friend of the blog Doug Peterson. Their theme involved concealing one-word #1 hit songs (including one of Loeb’s!) in larger phrases, leading to a Rihanna reference with UMBRELLAPOLICY, for instance.

And big names continue to appear.

Comedian and Tails of Joy pet advocate Elayne Boosler teamed up with Patrick Merrell for the July 12th puzzle, where they did modern day versions of classic films. For instance, Taxi Driver became UBERDRIVER and Holiday Inn became HOLIDAYAIRBNB. It was an excellent collab that made the most of Merrell’s gift of grid fill and Boosler’s wit and wordplay.

Clothing designer and television host Isaac Mizrahi joined forces with constructor David J. Kahn for the July 30th puzzle, employing crafty clues to put a spin on DIY construction phrases like “Cut and dried” and “On pins and needles.”

Tying a given puzzle’s theme to the guest constructor has been a recurring theme with the 75th anniversary puzzles, and the duo of Mizrahi/Kahn produced arguably the best examples thus far this year.

Most recently, constructor David Steinberg paired off with host, comedian, magician, and performer Neil Patrick Harris for the August 24th edition of the puzzle. Their magic-themed puzzle not only incorporated different parts of a standard magic show, but it concealed the name of a famous magician by hiding him among the down answers. (Or it would have, if he hadn’t escaped!)

Brilliant execution makes for a clever puzzle that Jeff Chen of XWordInfo declared one of his favorite puzzles of the year. (Of course, readers of the blog shouldn’t be surprised after solving the crossword Neil included in his autobiography.)

With more celebrity constructors still to come, including “a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others” (according to Will Shortz), I am definitely looking forward to seeing what other tricks these constructor/celeb duos have up their sleeves.


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Identity and Gender in The New York Times Crossword

[Image courtesy of the Odyssey Online.]

Only two months ago, I wrote a blog post about a Slate article discussing how The New York Times crossword can be socially tone-deaf at times. So it’s heartening today to write about a New York Times crossword puzzle that’s progressive, one that is bringing the conversation forward instead of feeling out-of-touch.

On Thursday, September 1, the paper published a crossword by constructor Ben Tausig. Even on the surface, this was a rare puzzle, because it allows for multiple entries that fit a given definition. These puzzles are known as Quantum puzzles or Schrödinger puzzles.

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword pictured below, which “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

In Ben Tausig’s puzzle, there are four across entries and four down entries that each allow for two possible answers. For instance, 67 Across is clued “Tough stuff to walk through” and the answer can be FIRE or MIRE. That entry crosses 60 Down, which is clued “Word that can precede sex,” allowing for the answers SAME or SAFE.

What separates Tausig’s puzzle from this elite group of masterfully constructed Quantum crosswords is what it represents on a social inclusiveness level.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in the box and still fit the definition — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female. Having GENDER FLUID as the revealer entry helps demystify both the theme and the topic at hand for solvers.

[Click here to see a larger version of the grid.]

As constructor Ben Tausig says in his XwordInfo write-up of the puzzle:

The theme letters don’t move from M to F or from F to M, in the manner of a binary, but float in an unresolved place in between. That’s a simple but reasonable way of representing queer sexuality — as a forever-exploration of identity and desire.

And although those two concepts only scratch the surface of the rich panoply of emerging terms and definitions with which people can express their gender or identity, this is an excellent step forward.

Kudos to Tausig and the crew at The New York Times crossword for a puzzle that’s elegant and inclusive in more ways than one.


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Puzzle Culture: Tone-Deaf Cluing?

The latest comic on Hayley Gold’s wonderful webpage Across and Down brought an article on Slate to my attention, and I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject.

The article by Ruth Graham was entitled “Why Is the New York Times Crossword So Clueless About Race and Gender?” and the centerpiece of the article was last week’s Tuesday puzzle, particularly the 31-Down clue “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM.

Ick.

HAREM is a troublesome word to clue as it is, one of those filler words that makes crosswords feel so behind-the-times, like PAGAN (which is always clued like “heathen” instead of as someone non-aligned with the bigger religions).

[A crossword that looks as old-timey as modern ones sometimes feel…]

Even the clues that pass for innocuous when it comes to HAREM, like “Sultan’s bevy of beauties,” are a little unpleasant, as if some tuxedo-clad goon is describing the contestants for Miss America, another antiquated practice that should go by the wayside.

But I’m getting off track here.

Graham’s point was about women and people of color being poorly treated by insensitive, thoughtless cluing, and she clearly did her homework while commenting on incidents in the past:

“Hateful” and “awful” may seem a bit harsh for what reads like a lame attempt at cheekiness. But the clue is certainly tone-deaf. And it’s not the first time a puzzle’s un-PC cluelessness has annoyed people. In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: “One caught by the border patrol.” The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision.

In 2013, a national puzzle syndicate apologized for using the clue “Shylock” for the answer JEW. And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN — presumably with an invisible exclamation point and flying sweat out of a Cathy comic.

[Image courtesy of TheGloss.com.]

I’m surprised she left out the granddaddy of them all when it comes to crossword insensitivity: the June 6, 2008 crossword that featured ETHNIC CLEANSING as 11-Down. (Special thanks to Eric Berlin’s website and Rex Parker’s blog for helping me track down the exact date on that one.)

She went on to discuss the dearth of women and people of color in puzzle constructing — something that is slowly changing, thankfully — as well as the tendency to only bring black culture into crosswords with “homies” and “thugs” in order to clue words like HOOD and GANGSTA, but there was one style of cluing that I feel should also be discussed in the same light.

You’ll see foreign words often clued with the English equivalent, and then some indicator of a foreign place. “One, in Seville” for UNO, or “Sea, in Paris” for MER. That’s all well and good.

[Image courtesy of Tumblr.]

But I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with clues like “June, to Juan” or “Left, to Pablo” that are meant to follow the same format. Picking names that are stereotypically associated with a given culture or ethnicity may not be as overtly hostile as cluing “Gangsta rap characters” as THUGS, but it’s certainly not MUCH better.

And we should do better. Crosswords are a cultural microcosm, representing the commonalities and peculiarities of our language in a given time and place. They represent our trivia, our understanding, our cleverness, our humor, and, yes, sometimes our shortcomings.

But if each crossword is a tiny time capsule, we should try our damnedest to have it represent the best of us.


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Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.


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5 Questions with Constructor and Puzzle Archivist David Steinberg

Welcome to the eighth edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m excited to have David Steinberg as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

With crosswords published in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times by the age of 15, David practically has crosswords in his DNA. He’s the crossword editor for The Orange County Register’s numerous publications, as well as the founder of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, an ongoing effort to digitize every New York Times crossword from before Will Shortz took over as editor. And he’s accomplished all of this before the age of 18!

David was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for David Steinberg

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

I started doing puzzles when I was very young — in early elementary school, maybe even kindergarten, I was doing puzzles in books my parents bought me. I was really into Jumble puzzles — I remember that one year, my elementary school had congratulatory “graduation” ads parents could buy to help support the school, and my mom designed one for me that was a Jumble puzzle.

But I didn’t really get into crosswords until I was twelve. My dad had been trying to do the crosswords in The Seattle Times, and I liked watching him and trying to help. My mom noticed my interest and thought I might like seeing the documentary Wordplay, so we checked it out of the library. I saw how Merl Reagle built a puzzle by hand and thought maybe I could do one, so the next day I did. And that was how I got started.

2.) With the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, you’ve established yourself as one of the key preservers of Puzzle History. Can you give the PuzzleNation readership an update on where the project stands right now and your projections for the future?

Thanks! As I write this, more than 12,100 puzzles have been digitized, or “litzed.” [Glenn’s note: As of publication today, the total is over 12,900.] We’re working backwards in time — we started in 1993 and are now litzing puzzles from 1961. We’re currently proofreading puzzles from 1980; all the pre-Shortzian puzzles from 1981 through November 20, 1993, are posted on XWord Info.

We’re in the middle of our third litzing contest, “Litzstarter,” and the goal is to reach 13,000 puzzles by the end of October. I’m hoping we finish litzing all the available puzzles by the end of 2014. I say “available,” because quite a few puzzles that were scheduled for publication in The New York Times were never published because of newspaper strikes. They likely appeared in other publications, however, and after all the puzzles we have are litzed, I’ll be launching an effort to track down the missing puzzles.

The proofreading is progressing at a slower pace because we only have a few proofreaders. My hope is that after the litzing is done, some of the litzers will become proofreaders. Finishing all the proofreading will probably take several more years, but I want the litzed puzzles to have as few mistakes in them as possible.

(Interestingly, many pre-Shortzian puzzles contain editorial errors — in most cases, we’re leaving those in, sometimes with notes that will be added later, so that the litzed puzzles will be accurate representations of what originally appeared in the paper. When the errors appear to be simply typesetting mistakes, we usually correct them.)

One other thing that’s happened recently is that I won a Davidson Fellows Scholarship for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project. This award was very gratifying, because it demonstrated that the project is of value to a wider community, not just to cruciverbalists.

3.) The hundredth anniversary of the crossword is fast approaching. Given your familiarity with puzzles both past and present, what does the hundredth anniversary mean to you? And what are the odds people in the future will be celebrating the crossword’s bicentennial with similar gusto?

The hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle means a lot to me — it shows just how long patterns of black and white squares have fascinated solvers. It’s amazing how much the crossword puzzle has evolved since Arthur Wynne’s first construction in 1913 — from crossing a bunch of words in the dictionary to symmetrical grids and entries from the news to complex themes like rebuses and entries reading backwards!

I wonder how crosswords will continue to evolve as new terms become in-the-language and new theme types become more widely used — perhaps they’ll be superseded by some completely different puzzle type. Either way, I think the 200th anniversary of the crossword puzzle will be very significant!

4.) What’s next for David Steinberg?

Between running the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, editing crosswords for the Orange County Register’s associated newspapers, constructing my own crosswords, and going to school, I don’t have much time to look ahead! But I do plan on going to college in a couple of years and hope to eventually become a software engineer. I plan on continuing to construct and edit crosswords, though, for the rest of my life!

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

One piece of advice I have for puzzle solvers is never to get too locked into answers you fill in that aren’t flat-out gimmes. Crossword constructors like to use a lot of misdirection — at times, I’ve had to erase five or six answers in a single corner before being able to finish! Erasing guesses and starting a puzzle with a clean slate can also be very helpful.

Similarly, crossword constructors shouldn’t get too locked into a particular fill and should explore all options — you never know what possibilities are out there until you explore everything!

Many thanks to David for his time. You can follow the progress of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project on their website, as well as David’s editorial efforts on the Orange County Register website. David continues to set records (most recently for the greatest age difference between collaborating constructors, when he worked with 99-year-old Bernice Gordon), and will no doubt be influencing the puzzle world for a long, long time to come.

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