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Crossword Puzzle Trickery


All kinds of goodness in today’s entry in the Writer’s Alamanac:

It’s the birthday of the world’s only academically accredited enigmatologist, Will Shortz, (books by this author) born on an Arabian horse farm in Crawfordsville, Indiana (1952). He’s the current crossword editor of The New York Times, the puzzle master of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, and the author or editor of dozens of books.

Shortz sold his first puzzle to a magazine when he was 14 years old, and within a couple years, he was a regular contributor to puzzle publications. In college, he designed his own degree program in enigmatology, which he describes: “Literally, it’s the study of riddles, but at Indiana I defined it as the study of puzzles.” He drew himself up an undergraduate curriculum of classes in English, math, philosophy, journalism, and linguistics, and wrote a thesis on the history of American word puzzles before 1860. He went to law school, thinking he’d work for 10 years and earn a bunch of money so that he could pursue his avocation of puzzlemaking.

But after graduating from law school, he skipped out on taking the bar exam and went straight into enigmatology, earning a living by creating puzzles for publications like Penny Press and Games magazines. In 1993, he became the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, only the fourth person to hold that position in the newspaper’s history. He has made some changes to the Times puzzle page in his 16 years of editorship: The crossword puzzles now have constructor bylines (before the contributors weren’t acknowledged), and the puzzles contain more references to contemporary pop culture (stuff like rock and roll and what’s on television). Puzzles also now have more tricks and ambiguities, he said. He has also “increased the slope of difficult further,” as he claims, between the daily puzzles so that Mondays are slightly easier than before he took over — while Friday and Saturday crosswords are even harder than they used to be. He said that the idea is “to have something for everyone, both beginners and veterans.”

His all-time favorite crossword clue is “It might turn into a different story,” with the answer “SPIRALSTAIRCASE.”

His favorite crossword puzzle is the one that was printed on Election Day 1996, designed by Jeremiah Farrell. The puzzle had two different correct solutions with the same set of clues. The clue whose answer formed one of the middle rows across read, “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper.” The answer seemed to be CLINTON ELECTED, but Jeremiah Farrell had carefully constructed ambiguity in all of the crossing clues, so that the answer to that middle-across clue could also be “BOB DOLE ELECTED.” Either answer worked perfectly in the puzzle.

The first downward crossing clue, for instance, was “Black Halloween animal.” Either “bat” or “cat” would be correct, with the C for the start of CLINTON or the B for the start of BOB DOLE. Will Shortz later said, “It was the most amazing crossword I’ve ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said, “How dare you presume that Clinton will win!” And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we’d made a whopper of a mistake!”

More than 30 years ago (in 1978), Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an event he still directs. Will Shortz and the Tournament were the subjects of a 2006 documentary by Patrick Creadon, called Wordplay. The film also featured a string of prominent puzzle-solvers, like Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls.

When asked why people are so drawn to puzzles, Shortz said, “We’re faced with puzzles every day in life. What’s the fastest way to run some errands? What’s the lowest price we can get on home repair? Most problems we’re faced with, we just do the best we can — we muddle through. We never know if it’s the best solution or not. With a human-made puzzle, when you answer the challenge, you know you have a perfect solution. It’s satisfying.”

Here are a couple of the many brain-teasers that Will Shortz has come up with:

1) What part of the body can be spelled by rearranging the letters of the word “ELATION”?
2) Change one letter of the word SHUFFLE to make something to eat.

1) Answer: Toenail

2) Answer: Soufflé



The Rundown

–From the “this doesn’t pass the common sense test” department:

Plaxico Burress carries a gun into a nightclub, accidentally shoots himself and is sentenced to two years in jail.

Dante Stallworth kills a man while driving drunk and serves 24 days of a 30-day prison sentence.


–Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey wrote an editorial last week criticizing President Obama’s health care plan and offering a few alternative (and conservative!) suggestions. His customers are now in a uproar — they can’t believe that the CEO of a business frequented by many liberals would publically support a conservative position. They’re talking about boycotts, never shopping there again, etc.

Really? You’re going to abandon your shopping habits — just like that — because of the policy position of a guy you probably couldn’t even name last week?

 –The U.S. Census Bureau just announced that in the 2010 census, they will not count Mormon missionaries serving overseas. They will, however, be counting military and federal employees on duty across the world.

They say that it’s difficult to get accurate counts of Americans abroad, but I’m sure the Mormon church has pretty good records of who is serving where. I’m not even Mormon, but this doesn’t seem quite right.

Don’t know about missionaries from other denominations. The SBC has a bunch of missionaries serving across the world. Probably shouldn’t count them either. They’re not actually in town when the count is down, so we’ll just cross them off the list.

–I’m glad men like this are teaching future pastors and missionaries, even if those missionaries don’t count.

–Speaking of the census, why hire fraudulent groups like ACORN to do it? We’ve already got an organized system of visiting every address in America every day. It’s called the United States Post Office.

Surely we can adapt the USPS to meet the needs of the census. Brilliant idea. (First heard it from Glenn Beck, I think. Side note: my old boss’ name is Beck Glenn.) But again, makes too much sense to ever happen …

–Funny blog post and video about two kids whose parents bought a backyard pool at K-Mart that turned out to be not quite as advertised … classic stuff.



I liked Rick Pitino. Great coach, great style of play, motivational leader.

But apparently not a good role model. I would have sent my son to play for him. Not anymore, not on the heels of the revelation that he got drunk one night at a restaurant six years ago and had sex with a woman he had just met. She later became pregnant and he gave her money for “health insurance” — when he knew she was going to get an abortion.

This is not a man I want my son to be around. He says things like, “If you tell the truth, the problem becomes part of the past. If you lie, it become part of your future.” Which is true, as far as it goes, but the only reason he’s talking about it now is that he got caught. Otherwise, he would have continued lying about it.

The president of U of L and the AD should send him packing. Immediately. There is a clause in Pitino’s contract that allows him to be fired for moral depravity. Um, yeah, this qualifies.

But they’ll stand behind him, say they support him and we need to move forward, blah blah blah. Why? Because he wins games. If his record last year had been 5-31 instead of 31-5, he’d already be gone.

One other note. Where does he find his assistants and how much are they paid? One of them stuck around (to keep watch?) while Pitino was having sex after hours in the restaurant. Another let Pitino and Karen Sypher meet secretly at his condo so Pitino could pay her off. And then he later married her. Yeah.

Pitino was a great coach at Kentucky. He has done well at U of L. He’d have been on the list of my favorite coaches. And sure, he can find forgiveness. But he doesn’t need to be coaching young men.

The honorable way out would have been to meet with his team, tell them what he’d done, ask their forgiveness, resign and go home to work full-time on repairing his marriage and family. He could afford it.