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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A crossword like you’ve never seen before

When someone sends me a link, claiming they’ve uncovered the most difficult crossword they’ve ever seen, I’m usually skeptical.

I mean, I’ve seen some diabolical crosswords in my day. From puzzle 5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the meta-puzzles lurking in Matt Gaffney‘s Weekly Crossword Contests to the Diagramless and Double Trouble crosswords offered by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, it’s hardly tough to find challenging crosswords these days.

But this puzzle, originally created for the 2013 MIT Mystery Puzzle Hunt and made solvable (and rotatable!) online by Greg Grothaus, might just take the cake:

As you can see, there are clues across three sides of the hexagonal grid: the across clues, the down-to-the-left clues, and the up-to-the-left clues.

But these clues are unlike anything I’ve seen before.

It turns out that these are regexps, or regular expressions, sequences of characters and symbols that represent search commands in computer science.

Now, anyone who has used graphing features in Excel or crossword-solving aids on websites like XWordInfo, Crossword Tracker, or OneLook is probably familiar with simple versions of regexp. For instance, if you search C?S?B?, you’ll probably end up with CASABA as the likely top answer.

Of course, the ones in this puzzle are far more complicated, but the overlapping clues in three directions make this something of a logic puzzle as well, since you’ll be able to disregard certain answers because they won’t fit the other clues (as you do in crosswords with the across and down crossings in the grid).

But if, like me, you don’t know much about reading regexp, well then, you’ve got yourself a grid full of Naticks.

If anyone out there is savvy with regexp, let me know how taxing this puzzle is. Because, for me right now, it’s like doing a crossword in a foreign language.

But I’m not the only one who feels this way. When I first checked out the post on Gizmodo, they titled it “Can You Solve This Beautifully Nerdy Crossword Puzzle?” and I laughed out loud when the very first comment simply read “Nope.”

Glad to see I’m not alone here.


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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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