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Staring Me in the Face

April 15, 2013 Leave a comment

coneyisland

This post is about a stunning failure on my part to make a connection between visual and verbal data. Or, a failure to see what was staring me in the face.

Eight days ago, we boarded a flight from LaGuardia to Atlanta. Once the cabin door was shut and I had to put away my Kindle, I pulled out the Delta flight magazine. Paging through, I came to the crossword and saw that it was edited by Will Shortz, which meant maybe it wouldn’t be overly easy and hence was worth a try.

I borrowed Gail’s pen and began. Soon I came to this clue: “New York’s _______ Island.” Hmm. Governor’s? Roosevelt? No. Too long. The answer was five letters. Ellis? No, the fourth letter was an ‘e’. I moved on.

In a few minutes, we took off, northeast over Long Island Sound, then turning sharply to the left until we were heading west toward New Jersey, with all of New York City laid out below our window. There was Manhattan, Roosevelt Island, the Queensborough Bridge. Farther down, the bridges to Brooklyn. Ahead, Newark and the Giants-Jets football stadium. South again, the Hudson. Oh, there’s the Statue of Liberty. And another island, which even though I had named it five minutes earlier in trying to fill in the crossword puzzle, I couldn’t identify now. (Ellis). And still farther south, Staten Island, with the Bayonne Bridge crossing south to it from New Jersey. And the Narrows, crossed by the Verrazano Bridge. Now we were turning southward and on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, there was Coney Island, which I pointed out to Gail.

Then I returned to the crossword. Still couldn’t figure out that island. A few minutes later, Gail drew my attention to the view once more and I said that that’s the Delaware River flowing into Delaware Bay. But what happened to Philadelphia? We couldn’t find it. We had come too far. Or was I confused. Then more water. The Chesapeake, Gail suggested. Yes, of course, for there was the Susquehanna River flowing into it from the west near its north end, with the bridges crossing the river, familiar from many a train trip over one of them. Soon we looked down on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

It was getting hazy now. I thought we should be able to spot Annapolis, or at least the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. We couldn’t.

Back to the crossword.

I was nearly done now. That island, though. Oh, first letter ‘C’, which gave me the partial answer “New York’s C _ _ e _ Island.”

And now it was obvious. Coney Island.

Can you imagine how stupid I felt? It had never occurred to me as we flew over the city to connect the islands I was naming to the crossword. I had even pointed Coney Island out to Gail, yet thought nothing of it.

The mysteries of the brain.

Categories: Crosswords, Travel

Crossword Constructor Exploitation

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

crossword

I have long wondered how well compensated NYT crossword constructors are. Each day, the paper dutifully prints the name of the puzzle’s constructor. With a magnifying glass you may be able to learn who it is. But Will Shortz always gets top billing, and you’ll have no trouble reading his name. My sense that constructors don’t get their due is confirmed by Ben Tausig in a recent piece (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan).

The financial stakes of the crossword are higher than a casual solver might realize. The New York Times, which runs the most prestigious American crossword series, pays $200 for a daily or $1,000 for a Sunday, which is certainly more generous than its competitors. However, The Times also makes piles of money from its puzzles. Standalone, online subscriptions to the crossword cost $40 a year ($20 for those who already subscribe to the dead-tree edition of the paper). In this 2010 interview, Will Shortz, the paper’s famed puzzle master, estimated the number of online-only subscribers at around 50,000, which translates to $2 million annually.

Meanwhile, The Times buys all rights to the puzzles, allowing them to republish work in an endless series of compendiums like The New York Times Light and Easy Crossword Puzzles. In that same interview, Shortz called these “about the best-selling crossword books in the country.” All royalties go to the New York Times Company, the constructor having signed away—as is the industry standard—all of his or her rights. Visitors to NYTimes.com will also be familiar with the crossword merchandise—mugs, shirts, calendars, pencils, and the like—pitched aggressively by the paper, and perhaps also with the 900 number answer line, which still makes some money from a presumably less Google-minded segment of solvers. Finally, the crossword has a significant impact on overall circulation. Lots of people buy the paper, or even subscribe, in whole or part because of the puzzle.

Tausig makes clear that his beef isn’t with Shortz, who has been a steady advocate for higher constructor pay. It’s with the Sulzbergers.

The crossword business needs its Curt Flood and its Marvin Miller. Yes, not a perfect analogy. But in the knowledge economy, the content creators deserve more. Royalties at the least.

Categories: Business, Crosswords

Aaron-Bonds Ladder

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, 2004


[AP Photo/James Finley]

The NYT crossword three days ago puzzled me. A typical Wednesday crossword has a theme built around several clues with long answers, ones that run at least half and perhaps the full width of the frame. This one, in contrast, had six starred clues, all with solutions that were five letters long. Even after I had filled in words for five of the six starred clues, I didn’t see what they had in common.

What’s a word ladder? I managed to get through a good part of my life without knowing. Then, on a trip to Colorado with Gail and Joel fifteen Augusts ago, I invented them (as no doubt many thousands of others have). We were staying for a few days in Estes Park, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, before going down to Denver to see the Mariners play the Rockies at Coors Field. That was the first year of interleague play, and the Rockies and Mariners were the biggest hitting teams, if not the most successful, in the National and American Leagues. This series was getting a lot of attention, and we were thrilled to be there. But first, Rocky Mountain National Park and word ladders.

One morning, we headed to one of the park visitor centers near Estes Park. The Moraine Park Visitor Center I would guess, as I look over a map. There was a gigantic parking lot, beyond which was a small lake surrounded by a paved path. You could grab a little brochure and take a self-guided nature tour around the lake, stopping at each numbered sign to learn about the flora, fauna, and geology of the area. Which we did, along with many hundreds. As we returned to our starting point, Gail headed toward the parking lot. In surprise and dismay, I suggested that we hadn’t come all the way here just to walk on pavement with the masses. We needed to get a ways into the woods. Joel would have been 10 years old then. I don’t recall how he voted, but off we went, with packed lunches, up a bit of a hill, then onto a relatively flat trail through the woods. A couple of miles in, we reached a pond, sat on some pondside logs, and had lunch.

The word ladder came into play because we needed a way to keep Joel occupied, and so I threw out a four-letter word, challenging him to come up with a new one by changing a single letter. Then Gail did the same, then me, and so on. At some point, we decided that the loser would be the one who couldn’t come up with a new word when his or her turn came.

This game would prove to be a great discovery. Over the next year, it was our game of choice when we needed to pass time. Some years later, I learned that what we were doing was constructing word ladders, the point usually being not to produce ladders for as long as possible but to get from a known start to a known end, perhaps with a ladder of minimal length. Now I see, in the wikipedia entry, that Lewis Carroll is credited with inventing them.

When we played our game, we didn’t allow proper names, but one might wish to make proper names the starting and end points of a ladder. For example, let’s choose the two baseball greats Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. How can we get from Mays to Ruth in minimal length? Here’s one way: mays-rays-rats-ruts-ruth. See? It’s easy. And fun.

Back to Wednesday’s crossword. (Read no further if you wish to try it yourself.)

The six starred clues were:

Brother of Moses
Von Richthofen, e.g.
Element in the cleanser 20 Mule Team
Bklyn., Queens and others
Sonny and Chaz
Adheres

The solutions:

aaron
baron
boron
boros
bonos
bonds

I got these, but I was puzzled. Enlightenment came in three stages:

1. I realized that they formed a word ladder.

2. I realized that the two ends were intended to be Hank Aaron and Bobby Bonds.

3. Two days later, by chance, I read that the fifth anniversary of Bonds’ breaking Aaron’s career home run record had just taken place.

Now I understood the puzzle’s point. Five years ago, on August 7, Bonds hit his 756th career home run. A little obscure, no? Not that one needs to know that to solve the puzzle. One doesn’t even need to know who Aaron and Bonds are. But really, did anyone solving this puzzle recognize that it fell on the anniversary of the record?

Categories: Baseball, Crosswords

Today’s Crossword Delight

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Swiss 10-franc banknote

I had a happy surprise last night when I did today’s NYT crossword. (If you haven’t done it yet but anticipate getting to it later, read no further until you’re done.)  The clue for 5-across is “Subject with limits and functions, informally,” with the not-so interesting answer ‘calc’.  But this set up up 45-across:  “Swiss 5-across pioneer,”  the answer (of course) being my favorite mathematician, Euler.  How can I not love a crossword with Euler in it?

It’s a continuing source of wonder and sadness to us mathematicians that geniuses such as Euler are largely unknown.  If he were a composer, he would be Bach. If he were a baseball player, he would be Cobb.  But he’s a mathematician, and a cipher, except at least in Switzerland, where he is a familiar figure.  (See above.)

This short biography gives some sense of his greatness. Have a look. And next time you see mention in a crossword of a Swiss mathematician, remember Euler.

Categories: Crosswords, Math

Recipe for Family Fun

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Here’s a recipe for some good Boxing Day family fun, though it is perhaps best saved for a year when Christmas is on a Saturday, so that Boxing Day falls on Sunday.

1. Buy æbleskiver pan (as Jessica did for Gail a year ago).

2. Buy æbleskiver recipe book (as I did for Gail this year). This one, for instance, which Gail had conveniently put on her Amazon wish list.

3. Get Sunday NYT (as we do every week, being subscribers).

4. Stand around in kitchen while wife begins preparation of æbleskiver and son starts in on the NYT Sunday crossword.

5. Accept son’s invitation to work on crossword jointly.

6. Take break from crossword to eat wife’s æbleskiver.

7. Finish crossword.

Æbleskiver, I should explain, are “traditional Danish pancakes in a distinctive shape of a sphere. Somewhat similar in texture to American pancakes crossed with a popover, æbleskiver are solid like a pancake but light and fluffy like a popover.” I suppose it might be possible to make them better than Gail did yesterday in her virgin effort, but I don’t know how. I thought they were perfect.

And the crossword was fun. I rarely attempt the Sunday crossword, not because of its difficulty but because of the time it requires. As you know if you’re a NYT crossword regular, Sunday puzzles aren’t all that difficult on the weekday difficulty scale. Maybe somewhere between Wednesday and Thursday. But the grid is 21×21 rather than 15×15, which is to say, there are 441 squares instead of 225 — twice as many. That’s a lot of time. I’ve done a few by myself, as has Joel. We collaborated on one a few months ago. And so we did again yesterday.

It went well, except for one square that pretty well stumped us. We guessed it took a ‘t’, which turned out to be correct, but we weren’t too clear on why. The horizontal clue was “Difference in days between the lunar and solar year.” Five letters. We had the first four: epac. We needed the fifth, and this was simply a word with which we were unfamiliar. The vertical crossing word should have saved us. It was seven letters long, starting where epac? ended, with the clue “stir.” We had ?hepoky as the answer.

If indeed the square stumping us took a ‘t’, then the vertical answer would be “thepoky.” Is that a word? We made guesses at its pronunciation. Well, maybe it’s two words — “the poky.” If so, the point still eluded us.

Finally we looked up “epact.” Yup, it’s the standard technical term for the difference in days between the lunar and solar year, going back to the Greek. And as for “thepoky” as a synomym for “stir,” the point we were missing was to think prison! We had the wrong “stir” in mind. If only we had the benefit local NYT readers did of yesterday’s blizzard, then we might have been snowbound, going stir crazy, feeling like we were in the poky. Oh well.

Nonetheless, we had done the puzzle. And we had eaten well. It was a good morning.

Categories: Crosswords, Family, Food