How Will Shortz Works

shortzoffice

[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

nursingtruth

If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Felix the Cat

It’s fun to uncover little puzzly bits of history, but when history, puzzles, and entertainment intertwine, it always makes for intriguing viewing.

So when friend of the blog Darcy Bearman showed me a Felix the Cat cartoon from the 1920s that centered around an unsolved crossword puzzle, naturally I was intrigued.

It wasn’t hard to track down a copy, given how practically everything seems to be on YouTube these days.

Here are the official details:

Felix All Puzzled (1924)

  • Director: Pat Sullivan
  • Animator: Otto Messmer
  • Distributor: M.J. Winkler Productions

Originally Released on January 15, 1925.

Felix is hungry, but his owner won’t feed him until he finishes his crossword puzzle. And he’s fixated on the down clue that will complete the puzzle, “Vertical. Found chiefly in Russia.”

Pondering what the answer could be Felix, the cat laments that he could eat if only he could get to Russia and uncover the missing word.

A nearby mule kicks Felix all the way to Russia, seemingly out of spite — clearly a Moscow Mule — and Felix lands in a small hut. Momentarily mistaken for a bomb, he leaves the hut and heads into town.

He sees two Russians leaning over some papers, and presumes that the answer will be on those papers. But after sneaking into the building, he’s accused of spying, shot at, and chased out. As it turns out, these two men are plotting a revolution, and they toss bombs at Felix.

After avoiding several of them, Felix is blown into the air by the last one, and ends up back in America.

His owner, the ungrateful boor, immediately asks if Felix found the answer. He doesn’t ask how his trip was, or if he’s alright, or hey, can I get you a bite to eat after your mule-and-bomb-propelled world tour. What a jerk.

And Felix’s snarky reply turns out to be the correct answer.

Felix laughs. His owner does a little victory dance. And the cartoon ends.

Naturally, I can’t help but ask… DID YOU FEED FELIX NOW THAT YOUR PUZZLE IS DONE, YOU SELFISH DOOFUS? I mean, come on. It’s the whole reason that Felix bothers going to Russia. He wants to eat. Feed him!

But I digress.

You may have noticed that the cartoon is a little choppy. If you did, kudos to you. As it turns out, most of the copies of this cartoon that are in circulation are from a Kodascope print where several scenes were cut. Given that the original run time listing was 5 minutes, suddenly the choppiness makes sense.

A half-dozen sequences or so are missing from this version, and they explain some of the weirder moments in the cartoon. For instance, the mule kicks Felix because the question marks (from his attempts to figure out how to get to Russia) tickle the mule.

Additionally, if you were wondering why the first Russian Felix meets thinks he’s a bomb, it’s because he got a letter from the revolutionaries earlier that reads “Today, you die!” (Which is admittedly a little grim.)

Now, let’s talk about that puzzle.

TRIPPLE is a pretty strange 1-Across. A chiefly South African term for a horse’s gait (according to Merriam Webster, anyway), you can’t help but wonder if they simply misspelled TRIPLE.

But the rest of the puzzle is fairly straightforward. It’s a 7×7 grid with a few two-letter entries (which wouldn’t fly in most crosswords these days). The combination of EASTERS and EVADERS crossing at the S is admittedly underwhelming, but as far as I can tell

The only other entry that jumps out at me is NVA, but only because I wonder how it would be clued. It’s not like a 1925 cartoon would be referencing the North Vietnamese Army.

Upon further digging, I suspect this would have been clued referencing the National Vaudeville Artists, a union formed by Edward Franklin Albee. The clue “Theatrical organization” is used for NVA in a 1953 New York Times puzzle, according to XwordInfo.

Of course, with obtuse cluing like “Chiefly found in Russia,” even a small grid like this could prove to be a challenge!


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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 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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But I have all the koalafications!

Good cluing is one of the cornerstones of quality crossword writing. Not only do the clues have to be interesting, clever, and challenging, but they need to be accurate as well. After all, there’s a big difference between playfully misleading and misleadingly wrong.

Thankfully, this is the Golden Age of cluing assistance, and there are numerous cluing archives and websites loaded up with crossword clues galore. Places like Crossword Nexus, Crossword Tracker, Wordplays, and XwordInfo are searchable, not only allowing constructors to look for new clues, but assisting solvers with troublesome clues.

It also makes researching crossword controversies a whole lot easier, like Hugh Stephenson’s koala-centric kerfuffle in The Guardian’s crossword blog.

You see, fellow puzzlers, a setter named Qaos used the following clue in a cryptic crossword:

Bear a left, then a right, then reverse (5)

This clue was intended to point toward the answer KOALA, both with the word “bear” and the directions “a left, then a right” — meaning A L, A OK — “then reverse” — KOALA. But some solvers took issue with Qaos referring to the koala as a bear, despite the common vernacular term “koala bear.”

Now, if we’re going by strict dictionary definition, those solvers are correct. The koala is a marsupial, not a bear. Of course, dictionaries were recently amended to say that “literally” no longer just means “literally” — it can mean “figuratively” as well. So I’m inclined to go beyond the dictionary definition and plumb the depths of crossword clue archives to see where the crossword community as a whole stands on the question of koala vs. koala bear.

The Crossword Solver lists the clue [Australian “bear”], but mostly avoids the controversy with a litany of clues like [Gum leaf eater], [Australian critter], and [Down Under climber].

If you go to Crossword Tracker, you mostly get clues that hedge their bet, like [Australian “bear”], [Marsupial sometimes called a bear], and [Australian bearlike beast], but there are a few hard-nosed clues like [It isn’t really a bear].

Crossword Giant agrees on this front, while Wordplays wavers wildly, citing both [Cute “bear”] and [Cute bear] in its archives.

I’d hoped for a definitive answer when searching XwordInfo, which is dedicated to clues featured in the New York Times Crossword. The Shortz era comes down firmly on the side of “bear”, not bear, but the pre-Shortz era is less rigid, with clues like [Living Teddy bear], [Bear of Down Under], and [Kangaroo bear].

And while I feel that the koala vs. koala bear issue remains unresolved, Mr. Stephenson is firmly in the koala bear camp, jokingly citing the 1983 Paul McCartney / Michael Jackson collaboration “Ode to a Koala Bear” as evidence.

Of course, if we’re going to start citing songs as evidence, that means “pompatus” is a real word, and that opens a whole new can of worms.

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