American Crossword Puzzle Tournament 2015: The Re-Re-Re-Re-Rematch

Not all that long ago, if you were to make a “David vs. Goliath” metaphor at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, there would have been no question who you intended for the role of Goliath. Tyler Hinman won the tournament for the first time in 2005, at the age of 20 years old, and then kept winning it, again and again, for five consecutive years — an incredible feat. The finals of the tournament take place in front of a large audience, on giant whiteboards, and year after year, we saw what makes a crossword champion: Tyler was fast, accurate, nimble-minded, and seemingly unstoppable.

Tyler’s first victory was documented in the movie Wordplay. The success of that movie attracted many more solvers to the tournament, including Dan Feyer, a good-humored, bespectacled theatrical music producer. Dan won the tournament’s C division in 2008. He won the B division in 2009. And in 2010, he unseated Tyler Hinman not only as overall champion, but as the tournament’s Goliath.

Dan elevated the competition: He was so freaking fast, and the puzzle community soon understood that he trained endlessly, solving every crossword in the world, one after the other, day after day.

Sure, Dan had only one win under his belt at that point, but anybody with half a brain could see that 2010 was likely the start of a new dynasty.

And so it has proven to be. Dan has won every year from 2010 – 2014, often leaving Tyler in second or third place. If Dan won in 2015, he would break Tyler’s record of five consecutive wins. Tyler, I think it is safe to say, dearly wanted to prevent that from happening.

Each year’s tournament begins with an easy puzzle — an appetizer for the meal to come. The top solvers hardly even need to engage their brains: Many of them wrap up this trifle in under three minutes… maybe under four minutes if they pause to breathe.

Dan Feyer solved the first 2015 puzzle in under two minutes.

Dwell on that for a moment, please. Think about the process of looking at a clue, understanding it, gleaning the correct answer, and writing it into the spaces. Think of all the things that might slow you down along the way, especially with a countdown timer looming over you: Even on an easy puzzle, you might misread a clue. Or you might come up an answer that fits the blanks but is wrong. Or the correct answer might simply elude you — not forever, but for a few seconds.

Apparently none of that happens to Dan — not on an easy, Mondayish crossword puzzle, anyway. An arrow shot from a bow meets no significant resistance on its way to the target. Dan is a similarly resistance-free machine for turning crossword clues into answers, and answers into letters in the grid. Breaking the two-minute mark for a tournament crossword is simply unreal.

Tyler had a similiarly impressive moment toward the end of the tournament. The main part of the ACPT consists of seven puzzles — six on Saturday and a final, Sunday-size crossword the following morning. The top three competitors move on to the finals. At the end of the first day, Tyler sat firmly in fourth place, behind talented solvers Joon Pahk and Howard Barkin. If he was going to have his rematch against Dan, Tyler would first have to solve the Sunday morning puzzle a full minute faster than either of the people ahead of him. It would be doable, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Well, it wouldn’t be easy for most people. Tyler wound up solving that crossword — akin to a Sunday New York Times puzzle — in just six minutes. Tyler would have been happy with third place, but his performance was so amazing that he wound up in second.

And so, we had our re-re-re-re-rematch. I confess that I felt skepticism about my friend Tyler’s chances. He is a shockingly good crossword solver, but Dan Feyer is… well, Dan Feyer. It was hard to imagine Dan making a mistake. It was equally hard to imagine him slowing down long enough to give either of his competitors an opening.

And yes, I also confess that I thought the odds were pretty long that Howard Barkin, the third-place finalist, would emerge as champion. He, too, is an incredible solver, always there in the mix at the top of the leaderboards. But solving in the finals — on those crazy whiteboards, in front of a large audience, with bright spotlights shining at you and while wearing the clunky headphones necessary to drown out the noise from the commentators — well, that’s a completely different experience from paper-and-pencil solving, and not much can prepare you for it. Howard has been in the finals before, but he doesn’t have the mileage of Dan or Tyler. His victory would have been a huge upset.

No, this was a battle between Dan and Tyler. The rules of the tournament gave Dan a five-second headstart, and he leapt into the puzzle with fervor — for the first minute or so, he shrugged off superhard clues like they were nothing at all. He soon had an entire corner filled in. Tyler, meanwhile, wrote in one long entry without any crossing letters (“Best-selling 1975 horror novel whose title has two apostrophes” — SALEMSLOT) but seemed unable to build on it in any significant way. He was sputtering around, writing in words here and there.

I’m not quite sure how Dan first ran into trouble. Perhaps it was because that first corner he filled in was the upper right, which provided him with a lot of unhelpful ending letters to other words. Undoubtedly, the middle-right section of the grid was more than a little difficult, with a semi-obscure inventor (James HARGREAVES) sitting on top of two geographic names. I couldn’t imagine Dan slowing down? Well, then, here was the unimaginable. Dan never stopped writing — he never just stood there, stymied; at least not for long — but he was somewhat short of his usual pace.

Tyler, meanwhile, knew that the only way to go was pedal-to-the-metal. He was jittery with energy, pausing here and there and then all but attacking the grid, slashing in letters and words. His scattershot beginning had provided him with a strong base, and soon he had a significant section of the puzzle completed. It was suddenly hard to tell who was in the lead.

For Tyler, it ultimately came down to perhaps ten squares in the lower left, blanks peppering words like ANNULI and the partial AIN’T I and the word RELIC, challengingly clued as “Holdover.” Tyler wrote letters in and erased them, and the audience started to mutter and then shout. Dan had only the lower right to go — more than Tyler’s ten squares, but he was picking up the pace again. He seemed to have none of Tyler’s doubts about his remaining answers; it was only a matter of writing them in fast enough. The audience was now very loud. It was clear that whoever won would do so by seconds.

Finalists solve the puzzle with their backs to the audience; they signal that they are finished simply by raising a hand and saying “Done.”

They say that Dan won by a half second. I’m not sure that’s right. It might be as little as a quarter second. Dan raised his hand, and then Tyler raised his hand in the very next instant; there was almost no pause at all. The audience went crazy — I certainly don’t recall ever seeing a standing ovation while one of the competitors was still trying to finish the puzzle. (The headphones the finalists wear aren’t that good at blocking out noise — Howard Barkin understood what had happened, and he paused long enough to bow in the direction of his competitors.)

It’s worth reiterating that Dan had a five-second headstart over Tyler at the start of the puzzle. Dan earned this by scoring fifty more points than Tyler over the course of the tournament, and Dan did that in part by tearing to shreds that very first puzzle — the one he solved in under two minutes. If the timer had ticked into the third minute, Dan would have scored fewer points, and thus have earned less of a head start — and would have lost. (It’s obviously of little consolation to Tyler that in fact he solved the final puzzle a few seconds faster than the champion.)

So… that was exciting. Indeed, the grand finale of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has rarely been more nailbiting. I suppose that will frequently be the case when Goliath battles Goliath.

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Metapuzzles Galore!

These past few years, I have made one or two practice metapuzzles for my Mystery Hunt team to solve. This year I went a little nuts, creating eight metapuzzles themed to the works of Mr. William Shakespeare. You can access the set of puzzles here.

Because the best part of solving metapuzzles is cracking them without all of the necessary answers, I have set this up so that you can reveal as few or as many words in each puzzle as you please. You won’t be able to edit this file, but you can copy each puzzle into an Excel spreadsheet or a Google Doc, and then change the text color of some number of words from white to black. If you’re a metapuzzle expert, you might start with half the answers, or less. If you’re new to all this, feel free to start with all the answers at once. It’s entirely up to you.

There are seven puzzles to start, and then those seven answers feed into the eighth puzzle, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Please do spread the word to other Mystery Hunters and puzzle nuts who might enjoy this. And if you’d like to verify an answer, please e-mail me: ericberlin@gmail.com.

Update: If you got stuck along the way or are simply curious, go take another look: I’ve added a new worksheet with all the answers.

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Under the Sea: Mystery Hunt 2015

One of my favorite parts of the MIT Mystery Hunt occurs hours before the event begins. I wake up, shower, shave, get dressed, and leave my hotel. I walk down Ames Street and enter building 66, one of MIT’s many buildings, which are linked together via a numbering system I cannot even pretend to comprehend. (Building 66 is connected to Building 56, which is connected to Building 16, which is connected to Building 26 on the one side and Building 8 on the other.) I’ve been attending the Hunt for eighteen years and still get lost at least once each weekend. But I can navigate the route from Ames Street to my Hunt team’s headquarters like a pro, like someone who belongs here.

Our main HQ is a classroom — 4-159, these past few years. I am almost always the first one there. When I arrive, it is empty and the lights are off. The blackboards are spotless. The tables are lined up in their orderly, businesslike way. We’ll soon see about that. I plug in our team’s phone and make sure it works. It does. I call my wife, who tells me that the Caller ID reads “Hunt-comma-Mystery.”

Do I want to start moving tables around and otherwise transforming this classroom into an official Hunt HQ? No. People will be here soon to help. For now, I’ll have breakfast and enjoy a few wonderful minutes of peace before a weekend jam-packed with the best kind of chaos.

Flash forward! The organizing team (One Fish, Two Fish, Random Fish, Blue Fish) has announced this year’s Mystery Hunt theme: A Jules Verne-inspired epic entitled “20,000 Puzzles Under the Sea.” The first batch of those 20,000 puzzles (actually, 162) have been released, and my team, Palindrome, has jumped in with the passion of people who have been waiting a long time for this moment. In no time at all, the previously spotless blackboards are filling up with answers.

Random’s collection of puzzles covered a delightful range of subjects. Over the weekend, we would solve crossword puzzles and other word puzzles, each with a particularly Huntish twist. (A “floating crossword” required answers to be entered in four directions; another one, entitled “This Puzzle Has No Errata,” was filled with mistakes.) (On purpose.) But those common puzzle types barely begin to scratch the surface of what we encounter over the weekend. We had to chase down four people walking around campus, using as clues the pictures they were posting to Twitter. Part of one puzzle appeared on a T-shirt that each team has been given. As always, puzzles took the form of a long list of pictures or cartoons, with no hint of what might tie them together.

The organizers did a wonderful job, too, at offering puzzles at a wide variety of difficulty levels. One entire round, “School of Fish,” was made up of 53 56 puzzles specially made to be a little more tractable, at least in terms of the Mystery Hunt’s usual offerings. Newbies and the easily frustrated were best advised to stick to those puzzles, lest you instead wind up staring at something like “Practice in Theory,” a series of physics problems that started off more-or-less understandable (though not, of course, by me) and then headed straight for Crazytown:

Matthias has a massive eel which behaves like a spring of spring constant K = 452.9269061N/m, unstretched length exactly L = 1m, and linear mass density exactly ? = 1kg/m. If he suspends it vertically, how far is the midpoint of the spring displaced relative to its unstretched position? Express your answer in nanometers, rounded to the nearest nanometer. Take g = 9.8m/s2 exactly.

…and that was one of the earlier problems. The ones dealing with superstring theory came later.

I personally kept almost all of my focus on the metapuzzles. These are puzzles made up of answers from the other puzzles in the round, and cracking them is always a big deal. We have a few teammates who are particularly good at metapuzzles, but this year the magic moments came from all over the room — insights and solutions came from a wider variety of people than I can previously recall. I was proud to break into one metapuzzle using only three of the eight answers — it helped that it was a Dr. Seuss-themed round, dealing with books I have read approximately one billion times.

My favorite solving moment of the weekend came as we were staring at the following answer words:

SUMMER
KERFUFFLE
WINNER
CURL UP
BIG SUR
SMS POMMERN
STIR FRY

We had previously realized that the title of each puzzle was the name of one of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, but with one word changed. But what did that have to do with anything? The best we could determine was that each word contained an “er” sound. Was that important, or was it a coincidence?

My friend Susan then came over and said something along the lines of: “This probably doesn’t mean anything and isn’t very important, but–“, and then she proceeded to hand us the key that solved the whole damn thing. She remembered the existence of a particularly silly meme that floated around the Internet a few years ago, of a very excited girl holding up three Goosebumps books. “GERSBERMS!” the caption read. “MAH FRAVRIT BERKS!” She quickly became known as the “Ehmergerd!” girl.

Sure enough, if you strung together the “er” syllables from the answer words, you got:

MER KER NER CURL SUR MERN STIR

And the answer to the puzzle was “Mechanical Sea Monster.”

That’s why we come here every year, of course — that lightning bolt of inspiration known as the Aha Moment. But that is not all the Mystery Hunt is about. There is also ample opportunity to show off your creativity. At one point, we had to subtitle new lyrics to “Gangham Style.” I don’t know the translation of the original, Korean lyrics, but I would like to believe my teammates’ efforts are a vast improvement.

We also needed to acquire items for Ariel’s Scavenger Hunt. You’ll remember that Disney’s Ariel has no idea what various things are called, and so that’s why we were asked to find, among other things, a tracuddle (“to help me see better”) and ralners (“to help me walk on land”). The more items you were able to gather for each made-up word, the better — and so our representative proceeded to sell the Hunt organizers on a cowbell for every single item. (“A movale? To wear to the ball?” {hits cowbell} “You’ll be the bell of the ball!”)

For a while there, I am told, my team was in the lead, but then we got stuck on several metapuzzles, and forward progress came to a near standstill. Nonetheless, we eventually solved every single puzzle. With great excitement, we approached what we believed to be the final part of the Hunt: The runaround. We gathered up our belongings and headed for the Green Building, as directed.

…where we learned that, in fact, there was one more thing we needed to do before the runaround. Indeed, we were not supposed to have brought our entire team to this location: Only five people were needed. As captain of the team, I became one of those five people, and I chose four others to join me, and we walked through a stairwell door and into a total nightmare.

At this point, the story of the Hunt had us going up against the Four Seahorses of the Apocalypse, who were waiting for us on four different stairwell landings. The puzzle was basically a variation on crossing-the-river-with-a-fox-and-a-chicken, and solving it meant running up and down the stairs for half an hour. On, in my case, two hours of sleep.

Heavens bless my teammates James and Foggy, who were able to keep straight all the various things we needed to accomplish, and in what order we had to accomplish them — apparently we were the first team to get through the tower without making an error that would have caused even more vertical running. I, personally, was absolutely useless during this: My big contribution took the form of Not Keeling Over.

And yes, that is sort of funny in the abstract, the middle-aged person pushing himself way too hard for the sake of puzzles. Except a few hours later, one of my teammates did keel over, collapsing to the ground, dehyrdrated and exhausted. This was during the actual runaround, a series of five stunts and large-scale puzzles that took my team close to seven hours to complete. I personally bowed out after the second stage, content to put my feet up back in headquarters and then, eventually, give up entirely and go back to my hotel. Somewhere around then, at about 5:15 a.m., my teammate suddenly needed serious medical attention.

We sort of forget how hard the Mystery Hunt is, not just mentally but physically. We — and by we, I mean the older folks, with older bodies and older metabolisms — need to remember that taking care of ourselves over the course of the weekend is non-optional. The classrooms where we work are small and crowded, and in the middle of winter they become a self-inflicted form of germ warfare. I’m nursing a miserable cold as I write this, and my brother followed up his Hunt experience with a nasty fever and a trip to his local urgent care facility.

My dad joked that next year we should all wear those paper breathing masks, like they do in Beijing. Right now this does not strike me as a bad idea in the slightest. You can bet we’ll have an industrial-sized container of hand sanitizer, to boot, as well as a giant water cooler, as well as a team captain who will be a total bear about getting people to regularly drink water. (“Why is that water bottle empty???”)

I would also not argue with a final runaround that doesn’t take so many hours to complete. It is by no means Random’s fault that my teammate wound up in an ambulance — we are all responsible for ourselves around here — but there is no denying that over the past few years, Runaround Creep has taken a firm grip on the Hunt, resulting in finales that go further and further over the top. The logistics of running these extravaganzas are such that teams need to rely on the organizing team to get everything right — at one point, our guide got misplaced, and we all had to turn around and go back the way we came. That would have cost us valuable time if we had still been competitive at that point. (We were not. Ultimately we would come in fifth place.) Other teams also mentioned long delays between stages of the runaround. Apparently one team did pass another along the way, but I’d love to see a finale designed to allow for more of that down-to-the-wire horseracing. Right now it feels like your destiny is, to a large extent, in the Hunt organizers’ hands.

(Although I remember quite well the runaround years ago that had two teams simultaneously jockeying for position in a single elevator, which both had correctly detemined was the location of the Hunt’s Grand Prize, a coin hidden somewhere on campus. That was down to the wire, all right. We don’t have to swing the pendulum that far back, though.)

My teammate, incidentally, is fine, or will be. He needed a couple of days of rest. So do I, for that matter.

And so we eventually reached the final part of the runaround, and earned ourselves not a coin but a shiny, black rock. It was given to me the next day at breakfast, and I shall honestly treasure it, in the same way that I treasure that initial walk to campus, the one that gets this all started every year. I might not stay up for 29 hours next time, and I’ll leave the physical exertion to my younger teammates, but there’s no way I can possibly stay away.

Later that day, we cleaned our headquarters. We got all the tables and chairs back in order, and swept the floor, and threw away about a half-ton of scrap paper… and then, my least-favorite part: Erasing the blackboards.

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Wrapping up Spaghetti

James McTeague rocked both games of Spaghetti this week, in each case imposing astonishing order on what was supposed to be wanton randomness. On day one, he figured out how to get binary numbers, and from there a word, out of the given words. Yesterday he went one better and took the patterns of consonants and vowels, turned them into Morse code, and extracted an answer (“ZINGER”) just as easy as you please.

I’m not going to try to summarize Ange‘s wonderful answer. But the first line made me laugh: “Take the Scrabble tile values of the FIRST FOUR letters in each word, and locate that string of numbers within pi.” Yes, of course. It just gets crazier from there — and yet, somehow, still elegant, in a Rube Goldberg sort of way. Go read the whole thing.

Indeed, I recommend in general you dive back into yesterday’s comments, because we had a lot of late-arriving entries that many of you probably didn’t see, and they are well worth your time.

Thanks for playing along! Hopefully the metapuzzles at this weekend’s Mystery Hunt won’t be anywhere near this crazy.

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A Second Helping of Spaghetti

As has been previously noted, there are two ways you can go when solving a round of Spaghetti: Surprisingly simple, or gloriously wacky. Yesterday we saw plenty of both.

James McTeague received the most votes by making us wonder if this wasn’t an actual metapuzzle instead of a bunch of random words: He observed that each word contained two Is and/or Os, and these could be arranged to spell out a word in binary. Honestly, I’ve seen real puzzles that were less elegant.

Codeman also played with the Is and Os, arranging the words into two strings so that all the Is were in one half and all the Os in the other. Amazingly, this technique reveals an eight-letter answer, CALIPERS, sitting right there, plain as day. Hard to believe.

Ange took third place, though in my opinion her answer best captured the absurdity of the whole exercise: It wasn’t enough that she was able to create an actor’s name out of each random word (by, of course, spelling each word backwards and adding a letter to a substring). She went the extra mile to determine that each actor had been in a movie with a punctuation mark in the title. Because obviously. The letters she added spelled out KEITEL, giving us another actor famous for punctuation-laden movies, or anyway, he had one in his resume, thank goodness.

Congrats to our three winners. You are all crazy brilliant. And also, just plain crazy.

Shall we do one more round?

I think perhaps the random number generator read yesterday’s results and concluded that it was too easy on all of you. Let’s see what you make of these five words:

STREP THROAT
DEAN
THANE
SOW BUG
EXCEPTIONAL

As before, you can add a sixth word of your choosing, if you wish. Whether you come up with an answer or not, please do check back and read what other people submit, and choose one or more as your favorites. Good luck!

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Spaghetti!

At the MIT Mystery Hunt, which begins this Friday, solvers will spend a lot of time staring at lists of words. Each list may seem like a random assortment (FLEMINGS, DOGHOUSE, READING, DUCHIES, UNSHORN…), but in fact each list has been carefully put together to be a puzzle. (Hey! You can change two letters in each word to make the name of a creature out of Lewis Carroll! FLAMINGO, DORMOUSE, RED KING, DUCHESS, UNICORN.) Once you figure out the key to each list, you’ll generally arrive at an answer word or phrase, which is always a huge and satisfying leap forward in the Hunt.

Below are five words. Just like in the Mystery Hunt, these five words are a puzzle. Unlike in the Mystery Hunt, however, these words were not carefully selected. Indeed, this random assortment really was chosen completely at random. I used a random number generator (this one, if you’re curious) and an abridged dictionary so we didn’t get anything too crazy.

Despite the fact that these words that do not belong together in any conceivable way, I’m going to ask you to pretend that these words comprise a puzzle… and solve it. That’s the game of Spaghetti.

Your five words:

ACIDIFY
WHIMSICAL
IMPROVE
MORROW
NONPERSON

You have the option of adding a sixth word to this list, of your choosing. Figure out the “solution” to these words and put it in the comments — along, of course, with your detailed explanation of why your solution is correct. Check back every so often to read the other solutions, because the winner will be determined by vote: If you enjoy a particular explanation, be sure to click the Like button. We’ll have a wrapup of the best answers tomorrow, along with one more game.

Happy solving! Or, well, maybe solving isn’t exactly the right word for this…

Update: Just to clarify, you can vote for as many or as few solutions as you wish, and you certainly don’t have to submit your own answer before voting for somebody else.

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47

46 was pretty good, all in all. I finished a new book, or possibly finished two new books, depending on how you look at it. (The second was technically finished in 2013 but was rewritten substantially over the past year.) I’m hopeful that one or both will find homes before I write a blog post entitled “48.” A movie studio bought an option on Winston Breen, which was a surprise, to say the least. That doesn’t mean there will be a movie, necessarily — an “option” is simply Hollywood-speak for “No one is allowed to develop this but us.” Lots of stuff gets optioned; very little makes it all the way to the big screen, or even the direct-to-DVD small screen. Still, it was a nice little unexpected windfall.

And yet, the movie option wasn’t the biggest news on the writing front. The problem is, I can’t tell you about the biggest news… not yet. It’s still up in the air, and might not work out at all. But it will be pretty big news indeed if everything comes together as I hope. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, there is the simple act of writing. You’re not editing, or rewriting, or working on the galleys of the book you sold? Then you better be working on the next book. But I’ve been doing more staring than writing of late. Maybe having two completed books sitting around is damping the fire a little. Maybe I’ve been working on this particular project for too damn long: I’ve been carrying it along for close to ten years, putting it aside, taking it out again, putting it away again, and so on. Some days I think, “You have too many words on this thing to just let it fade away.” And other days letting it go seems like a mighty good idea. Start something fresh, see where it takes me. At the moment of this writing, I have no idea which way I’ll finally go on this. But I do hope to write “The End” on something substantial at some point in 2015.

The kids are both doing well. Alex started off the year butting heads with his teacher, who only rarely seemed able to keep him on track. But she’s gone now, replaced by one of the best teachers Alex has ever had. Evidence A: Over the years, we have tried a number of different ways of getting a daily report from Alex’s teacher. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get a daily e-mail, but just as often we’ve had to rely on a simplistic form with checkboxes: Alex had a [ ] good day or a [ ] bad day. Alex’s first teacher this year needed the form. We gave the new teacher the form, too, and her response to it was, “This is okay, but I’d like something where I can give you more detail.” (She probably didn’t say that in italics, but that’s how we heard it.) A teacher who wants to do more for us than we asked! So we’re pleased.

Lea is still in homeschool, though real school may lie on the horizon. We went to the open house of a magnet school in Bridgeport, the Fairchild Wheeler School, and she (somewhat to my surprise) liked what she saw. Collaborating with other kids on projects; a brand new facility; a roomful of sound equipment that has barely been touched. (One of her current interests is sound design, not that she has any real way to explore that particular art form just yet.) We have tried to communicate the simple truth that this school is going to work her pretty damn hard, but she says she’s okay with that. And so we are preparing, trying to give her a leg up — our homeschool time is largely spent covering all the topics she’ll learn afresh in her first year in high school. One way to make life easier in a tough new school, we figure, is to walk in already knowing most of the things they’re going to teach you.

So what else happened this year? Well, I celebrated ten years at my company, Penny Publications, and it’s amazing how fast those years flew by. (My previous record for longevity was about two years, at a dot-com that got swallowed up by the first crash.) My wife and I said goodbye to what will almost surely be our final foster child, a baby girl who was with us for 14 months and who now lives in San Antonio with her extended family. We get to see her every once in a while via videochat — I don’t know if she remembers us, exactly, but she blows kisses into the camera, and that’s just peachy. There’s even a chance we’ll get to see her again in the flesh — finalizing her adoption might mean a trip back to Connecticut. A bit of a pain in the neck for her family, and really kind of outrageous from a red-tape point of view, but that hasn’t stopped us from being hopeful about it.

I got to travel to Vermont, to a retreat held by Erin Murphy Literary Agency, which I joined as a client at the end of 2013. There I met a whole bunch of brilliant and talented writers, and also, in a career first, my own agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. (I managed to work with my previous agent for seven years without ever meeting him.) I also traveled to Portland, Maine, for the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League… and for the first time brought my entire family along. Alex loves staying in hotels, and got to ride on streetcars and buses. Lea and I went open-sea kayaking with a host of other puzzlers, and I managed to convince her to join my team for the Saturday night puzzle extravaganza — she was skeptical that she would contribute anything, but wound up co-solving successfully with a boy her age, my friend Todd’s nephew. It wound up being one of the more special puzzle-related events that I can remember.

Alas, there will be no EMLA retreat or NPL con for me in 2015: We’re in the midst of a home improvement spending spree, so I need to go easy on the galavanting around the country.

In other puzzle news, 2014 had my first New York Times Sunday crossword in three years, and hopefully I won’t wait that long again to develop another one. Tyler Hinman and I teamed up to solve Foggy Brume’s wonderfully entertaining Puzzle Boat 2, and I imagine he and I will set sail on Puzzle Boat 3 when it launches later this year. And, weirdly and unexpectedly, I wound up winning a contest sponsored by Google: I was the first person to submit the correct answer to a challenging and involved puzzle. Asking around, I learned that several much stronger, faster solvers all misunderstood something crucial in the instructions, and each of them wound up submitting the wrong answer. So the tortoise beat the hare, and as a result I won a free screening of The Imitation Game, to which I invited the local homeschool community, high school students, and my colleagues. We didn’t exactly fill the place, but everyone seemed to enjoy the movie.

I’m looking forward to the Mystery Hunt just twelve days from now — it’s always nice to start off the year with such a grand highlight. In March, the Black Letter Game kicks off again — this unusual puzzle event takes the form of “artifacts” mailed to your home, one per month for four months. Last time I solved it with friends Foggy Brume, Mark Halpin, and Dave Shukan, and we’re reuniting for the sequel. I imagine there will be a DASH puzzle hunt come the springtime. Last year I played chaperone as my daughter competed in DASH Jr. I’m not sure she’ll want to do that again, though, and while that’s sad, it does allow me to jump back in to the solving myself. Which I shall do, of course.

And when I’m not puzzling, or going to the mall with my son, or helping my daughter learn geometry, I’ll spend my 47th year writing. What I’ll be writing is way up in the air. But I’ve been at this long enough to know the words will come eventually.

You’ll perhaps notice an absence of oh-my-God-getting-older!! in this birthday summary. I hope I’m done with that. Much of the world is an unbelievable mess, and yet here I am with my family, healthy and safe. I know that I am very lucky — much too lucky to complain about how quickly the time is rushing by. My 46th year was a happy one, and I am hopeful that 47 will be as well. I hope your year is fruitful and happy, too.

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Project Alex: Hurry Up and Wait

My wife and I do not necessarily want to rely on the federal and state governments for Alex’s future housing and other major needs. Ideally, we’d love to get together with other parents of disabled children and work together to set up a place where all of our kids can live, pooling our resources so that trained staff can come in and help out. For various reasons (which we’ll get to in future posts), this utopian concept would be a mighty hard go in real life. Maybe that will change in the next ten years, but for now let’s take it as a given that caring for Alex as an adult will require cooperation between his parents and the state.

Except no. Because the state of Connecticut — despite a Department of Developmental Services budget of $1.1 billion, the second highest per-person in the country — has no resources to help people like Alex. As things stand now, when Alex is grown, he will not move into a group home or his own apartment. He will be placed on a waiting list. And then he will wait for a long, long time.

I recently attended an eye-opening meeting of The Arc of Connecticut. They’re an advocacy group that focuses on improving the lives of people with intellectual and physical disabilities — and specifically focuses on exposing the state’s disastrous mismanagement of resources.

How disastrous? How about this: Currently, there is no residential support whatsoever for disabled adults except in cases of dire emergency. None. Zippo. Instead, there is only the waiting list, with over 2,000 people on it as of June 2014.

The 2,000 people fall into one of four categories: E, P1, P2, and P3. E stands for Emergency. These are disabled adults with absolutely no resources of their own: Their parents have died, and they have no other family able or willing to care for them. The law (and simple, human compassion) requires the state of Connecticut to find a place for these people to live. As of March 2014, there were about 30 people classified in this way.

The P of P1, P2, and P3 stands for “Priority.” A disabled adult classified as P1 is supposed to get help within one year. This never happens, so you can imagine what sort of hope the P2 and P3 cases have.

So where, you might well ask, is that $1.1 billion dollars going? Is anybody getting help in the state of Connecticut?

Of course! The people who are already in the system are getting help. It’s simply that there is no room for anybody else. And why is that? Well, let’s take a closer look at the numbers — provided, once again, by Arc.

Services in Connecticut flow from two sources: The state itself, and a number of private providers. Each gets about half of the giant pool of money budgeted each year by the state government. But the two sides are using that money very differently. According to a report from Connecticut’s own Department of Developmental Services (acquired by Arc via a 2014 FoIA request), the state is spending $367,000 per person to maintain 937 disabled individuals in various residences. Private group homes, on the other hand, are helping closer to 3,000 people… at a cost of just $129,000 per person.

In 2012, a study sponsored by the Connecticut General Assembly came to the blindingly obvious conclusion that maybe the state should rely more on private providers, and close down its public institutions. The Arc estimates that doing so would eliminate the waiting list. But the results of that study have been ignored. (Or, well, maybe it’s been read a bunch of times, and frowned over appropriately, but nothing major has happened as a result.)

Now, I don’t think an entirely privatized system will instantly solve Connecticut’s DDS-related problems, all at once. For a start, one reason for the huge disparity lies in the salaries of those working with the disabled tenants: In the public sector, a starting salary might be $22/hr plus benefits. In the private sector, someone might start at a mere $10/hr, and I have a hunch that a salary that low does not come with health insurance. I don’t know about other parents of disabled kids, but I’d rather go to bed knowing that the people looking after my son are paid somewhat better than a Walmart stockboy. On the other hand, there are limits to my gratitude: The Arc spokesperson told me that some public workers are making $150,000 in overtime.

No matter how long you play with numbers, though, it’s plain that the public institutions need either a top-to-bottom rethink, or they need to be shut down in favor of a greater reliance on private organizations. So why hasn’t this happened?

For lots of reasons, starting with the fact that not everybody agrees with these conclusions. The people working at the public institutions, for example, are pretty happy with the status quo and would like to see it continue indefinitely… and these folks are represented by fairly powerful unions. The families of the people served by public institutions are similiarly in no rush to see their disabled relatives, for crass budgetary reasons, uprooted and moved to new homes. Finally, closing down an institution like Connecticut’s Southbury Training School is not simply a matter of waving a magic wand and saying “You’re closed!” It’s going to be expensive, and I suspect that the resulting savings will not be immediate.

Longterm, however, it’s the only possible way to go: In the late 1990s, the Southbury Training School was prohibited from taking in any new residents. They had about 800 residents back then; now they’re down to 380. Hopefully the politicians will take action before Southbury becomes another Fernald Institute. Located in Massachusetts, Fernald was closed only recently, in November of 2014. At the time, it had 13 residents remaining… and the cost-per-patient had climbed to nearly $1 million per year.

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The ongoing protest

I’m a white guy who turned the news off last night at about 11:00 p.m. — because I could — and went to sleep in my house in my peaceful suburban neighborhood. So I understand that my opinion on anything related to Ferguson means absolutely diddly-squat. Which does not prevent me from having said opinion, or expressing it here.

I spent a lot of time recently keeping an eye on the protests in Hong Kong. The protests, which seem to be winding down (or are in any event generating fewer headlines) were driven mainly by college students. They were an effort to shore up and expand democracy in the region, despite the fact that China itself is, of course, Communist. China promised when it regained control of the former British colony that they would continue to allow democracy there for fifty years. An upcoming election shows how they plan to subvert this: There will be a vote, but the only candidates on the ballot will be those approved by the Chinese government. The students in Hong Kong took to the streets to show their resistance to this.

The protest was peaceful and thoughtful and reasonably well organized. But ultimately it had a greater effect on the residents of Hong Kong (who were increasingly inconvenienced by it) rather than the authorities. It was an honorable protest, and it was an important protest, but it was not an effective protest.

The protestors in Hong Kong were unwilling or unable to raise the stakes, to take their protest to a level beyond standing in the street with their umbrellas.

What might that next level have been? It’s hard to know. They didn’t seem to have that many options. Could they have taken over a government building? I suspect that would have been short-lived and ineffective. I don’t have the slightest idea how the Hong Kong students could have built up their protest to achieve any sort of victory.

I don’t know for sure what the protestors in Ferguson should do next, either, but in this case I do have an idea, stemming from this excellent article by Radley Balko on how St. Louis county preys on its poorest (mostly black) residents with a steady water-drip torture of fees and fines, the non-payment of which can mean jail time.

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations. In a white paper released last month, the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash.

“These aren’t violent criminals,” says Thomas Harvey, another of the three co-founders of ArchCity Defenders. “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”

There will be protests in Ferguson. There will be marches and speeches. But to all this I suggest the following:

St. Louis County gets as much as 40% of its budget via fees and fines from its court system? Starve the local government of these funds. Refuse to pay. The system is rigged to extract the maximum amount of money from the very poorest and most vulnerable citizens, and to threaten with jail time those who cannot navigate the county’s ever-increasing number of hoops and hurdles. No more. Let the courtrooms be empty until the law is fair.

This is, of course, easy for me to say. I am a thousand miles away from Ferguson, MO. It is unlikely that I will ever fall into one of the county’s many speed traps, or receive one of a million different ordinance violations. I can assert, “What are they going to do? Arrest everybody?”, knowing full well that a) they might very well try and b) I won’t be among those arrested.

My point is only this: Standing in the street, expressing your rage and sadness, makes for effective, emotional theater. I was moved by the pictures out of Hong Kong, and by the pictures out of Ferguson. But we know by now what the authorities’ response to this will be: Contain the protest and then wait it out. And then to continue the status quo. It needn’t be that way in Ferguson and in the other 89 municipalities of St. Louis County. They have built a corrupt and racist system on the backs of its citizens. What happens if those citizens stand up?

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Woodworking 101

Holy crap, people — I did something HANDY.

Doorknobs come in a standard size: They are made to fit holes with a 2 1/8″ diameter. The hole in my daughter’s bedroom door was, inexplicably, just 2″. It needed to be expanded by an eighth of an inch before the new doorknob could be installed. Here’s how you do that:

– Put off job for, oh, six months or so. Why do this in warm weather when you can do it when it’s freezing?

– Go to Lowe’s. Buy a “hole saw” of the proper diameter. It fits into your power drill like a standard bit.

– Get home. Plug in drill. Geeeennntly place the drill with the hole saw over the too-small hole in your daughter’s door. Turn on drill. Scratch the holy hell out of the door when the drill jumps all around. Turn off drill.

– Watch a YouTube video about how to use a hole saw.

– Go back to Lowe’s. Buy the safety goggles you probably should have had the first time around, as well as some clamps and a piece of scrap plywood.

– Take drill and plywood outside. Play with extension cords for a stupid amount of time until you realize that there are TWO extension cords on the porch, and the one that is plugged into the outlet is not the same as the one plugged into your drill.

– Drill part of a hole in the plywood before the hole saw comes flying off the drill. Reattach the hole saw and adjust the drill so that it is no longer in reverse. Drill rest of the hole in the plywood.

– Clamp plywood to daughter’s door so that the hole entirely encompasses the too-small hole in the door. Put an insufficient amount of newspaper under the door to catch sawdust. Have daughter hold door very steady.

– Using hole in plywood as a guide, drill hole in door.

– This happens so smoothly and so fast that surely something must have gone wrong.

– But no! Wife installs doorknob in about 90 seconds. Works perfectly!

– Ignore scratches in door for rest of life.

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