Eric Berlin

Jul 212014

1. Get there on Wednesday, so that you can go to the picnic. Over the years, this has become the true start of the annual NPL convention, though officially the con doesn’t get going until Thursday evening. This year the variable weather in the host city — Portland, Maine — forced the picnic indoors, and the food was more snacky than dinnery. A perfectly legit way to go, picnicwise, but I was traveling with my family, and I wanted them to have something to eat beyond Whoopie Pies and Moxie. Also, my son sometimes has a problem with crowds, and this was one of those times, so we walked down to the Portland harbor and found a restaurant where the wife and I could get lobster-based meals and the kids could get nugget-based meals.

2. Just because you had dinner, though, doesn’t mean you can’t go out for a second dinner, if you’re invited along by NPL friends. Over pizza (the best I’ve had in a long time), discuss puzzles, math, pop culture, games, opera, trivia, and who even remembers what else. That’s how conversations tend to go at NPL cons; that’s one of the main reasons I go to them.

3. Late-night games! You have to play late-night games! Conventiongoers bring along home-brewed versions of different game shows, as well as wholly original offerings, and these get played and re-played late, late, late into the night. This year I had a slight logistical concern: Sure, I could stay up playing games until 3:00 a.m. — that is by no means unheard of — but I knew that I would regret that in a major way when my children inevitably woke up four hours later. So I didn’t get in nearly as many games as usual. But I managed to hit my short list of must-play games. “It Takes Two,” in which partners have to work together to figure out every trivia answer, is at the top of that list… and happily, this year the inventor ran an afternoon session for us early birds. (And which my partner and I won!) I also stayed up late specifically to play my friend Jeffrey’s latest version of Jeopardy!. He’s been running a new game each year, with categories and questions that dance between challenging and wonderfully absurd. This year’s Maine-themed game had categories devoted to Murder, She Wrote, and the Cryptozoology Museum. And instead of that old Jeopardy! standby “Before and After,” we had “Before and Lobster.”

4. Yes, it’s the National Puzzlers’ League convention, but you’re allowed to do things other than puzzles. In Maine, my wife took our son to the local train museum. My daughter and I, and a bunch of other NPLers, hit the beach for some glorious open-sea kayaking. Glorious, that is, once we actually got our kayaks on the open sea. Lea and I went river kayaking last year, and I stayed bone dry the whole time. This year, trying to get the kayak past the breaking waves, I was drenched from head to toe in about ten seconds. But then we were on the water, and it was beautiful, serene, joyful. It dawns on me that I can probably go kayaking even here in my home state of Connecticut. I should look into that.

Daughter and I also went rock climbing in Portland, making this by far the most physically exerting convention since the one in Montana back in 1999, when a whole bunch of us went white-water rafting.

5. There’s a big foodie contingent in the NPL, and each year they hit the shmanciest restaurants they can find — I’ve joined them a couple of times. This year, with kids in tow, that wasn’t in the cards… although we did manage a tremendously good meal at Nosh Kitchen Bar. My barbecue pork sandwich wasn’t as life-transforming as the barbecue I had at last year’s convention in Austin, Texas, but the Nosh version had a layer of macaroni and cheese right there in the sandwich, and if that is not the definition of good food, I don’t know what is. And my wife is now obsessed with learning how to make the restaurant’s “Belgian fries.”

6. I’m up to point 6, and the convention hasn’t started yet. At a convention of puzzle lovers, our official events consist of trivia and word games, scaled up so they can be played by 200 people in a go. Favorites from this year include Trip Payne‘s very clever deduction game, “Ten Clued Very Much.” (Bonus points for that name, amiright?) Players had to figure out ten specially chosen words, using as few clues as possible. Each clue pointed to exactly two of the words — “Word 2 and Word 6 are rhymes,” for example — and each pair of words was clued exactly once. [Wait, no, wrong. See comments for a correction.] If you could figure out one word… just one word… you might, with the help of a few other clues and a couple of linguistic leaps, spark a mental chain reaction that will lead you to all the other answer words. A very fun, puzzly challenge, and one I’d love to play again.

I also enjoyed a variation on the simple trivia game of “Initials.” Sure, you might be able to name things with the initials R W, but can you name a two-word phrase with those letters in the fifth positions of the words? Now do that for a whole bunch of other letter pairs.

7. The official games are all well and good, but the highlight of the official schedule is inevitably the Saturday-night extravaganza — a team-solve puzzle event, usually a dozen or 15 puzzles strong, created by some of the best puzzlers around. Normally I get on a “running” team, racing with others to solve all the puzzles as fast as I can. This year, my friend Todd asked me to be on a more-casual “strolling” team, so that his teenage nephew, Ian, could participate. I was also able to convince my daughter to join in, fully expecting that after fifteen minutes she would say, “Can I go upstairs now?” But she stayed for the whole event, working with Ian on several puzzles, and, with assistance, doing the legwork that brought us to the finish line. Her delighted laugh when she saw the final answer made me want to jump up on the table and do a little tap dance.

8. And still there is more to do. Each year solvers bring puzzle handouts for the enjoyment of one and all — your clipboard will be stuffed with them an hour after you enter the hotel. If you like cryptic crosswords, an NPL convention is Wonderland. In addition to the many puzzles shoved at you every time you turn a corner, there are also three “official” cryptics, which are generally eye-popping constructions. This year’s puzzles were no exception. Patrick Berry’s sequel to his astonishing Teleportland cryptic of several years ago is a miracle of word weaving. I assume he’ll post it on his Web site soon; do not miss it.

9. It was an extra pleasure being there with my family. I knew I’d find ways to entertain my daughter; my special-needs son was another story. But we had a fine time taking walks around Portland. Down the block was a small park where artists and musicians set up shop — we stopped to enjoy several of them, including a wacky event where people were invited to rock in rocking chairs, thus creating abstract paintings on the canvases under the rockers. Portland has trolleys rolling around, which means my son would be delighted to move there permanently. And Alex has always loved hotels: Riding in the elevators, exploring various hallways, looking out the window at an entirely new view of the world. Here there was the added bonus of various people greeting him by name — people who last saw him in a stroller, now accepting his overenthusiastic high fives. I don’t know that the whole family will go to next year’s convention in Vancouver, but the next time there’s an east coast con? Yeah, maybe we’ll all be back.

Jul 192014

It’s been nearly three years since my last New York Times Sunday crossword. Way too long! We rectify that oversight with a new puzzle you can find in the 7/20 issue of the Sunday magazine. Expert solvers can avert their eyes from the special instructions — the puzzle will still be solvable, though it might take a little longer to figure out what’s going on. Enjoy!

Jul 022014

A comedian on Twitter tried his hand at recreating a famous movie, from start to finish, in the medium of emoji. Can you figure out what movie this is?

Apr 132014

I’m back from hanging out with two dozen authors and about 1,000 kids at “April is for Authors,” a popular and well-run festival in Palm Beach, Florida. Let’s see, what did I do down there…

– I palled around with Tyler Whitesides, author of the “Janitors” series. Kids regard him as a flat-out rock star — I have never seen kids get so starstruck about a writer. He literally could not walk around town without kids running up to him, asking for photographs.

– I was on a panel with Chris Grabenstein (“Escape from Lemoncello’s Library”) and Lisa Graff, ostensibly on the subject of puzzles in fiction, though we wound up covering the whole writing waterfront — first drafts, rewrites, finding the perfect ending, etc.

– All the authors were asked to do two sessions of a seminar about whatever we wanted, and I thought I might teach kids how to write mysteries. Looking through the program, though, I kind of panicked — I was the only one doing something “teachy.” Everybody else was talking about how they wrote their latest book, or “How I Became a Writer,” or something like that. Well, whatever — I didn’t have a backup plan. I would do my seminar with whoever showed up. But it turned out great. I had a decent crowd for both sessions, and while I stumbled a bit because it was such a new presentation, there were teenage writers taking notes and asking questions. I was very pleased.

– Oh, and the day before I had an excellent school visit at Sunset Palms Elementary School, where I spoke to something like 50,000 kids. Or maybe my memory is playing tricks on me. It’s a big school, though, that’s for sure.

– More name dropping? Sure! Somewhere there’s a selfie of me and Terry Trueman that I hope I get to see at some point. I got to chat with Alan Silberberg, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the poet Robert Forbes, and A.S. King. I resisted telling A.S. how much I like her name because it can also be respaced as a word. I suspect she’s heard that before.

So, a very nice few days, and I signed a whole bunch of books to boot. Great to be home, though, of course, and to see my kids when I woke up this morning.

Mar 092014

I bounced around this weekend between varying states of healthy — one minute I felt fine, the next minute the cold I thought I had left behind came roaring back. Friday night at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I did something utterly unheard of: I was in my hotel room by 8:30 p.m. and asleep by 9:00. Ten hours of sleep surely went a long way to allowing me to survive the weekend.

My preparations for this year’s tournament consisted of thinking seriously, on more than one occasion, that I should probably solve a few crosswords before the tournament began. I never really got around to the actual solving part, however, and it showed in my final results. Just a couple of years ago I peaked with a ranking of 79. This year, I was clean on the first four puzzles, but too slow to rise above a rank of 100. Then Brendan Emmett Quigley’s puzzle 5 crushed me like an insect. Final result: A not very satisfying 152.

To the surprise of nobody, Dan Feyer won his fifth championship in a row, tying Tyler Hinman for most consecutive wins. Am I crazy, or does Dan seem to be getting even better at crosswords? He had a mistake in this year’s final puzzle for about twenty seconds — a mistake that happened to include some correct letters, so he was able to put in some crossing entries. That’s the sort of thing that sends lesser solvers careening off the road — how can this be wrong when these letters are right? But Dan caught his error in no time flat, replaced it with the right answer, and never looked back.

During the finals, I was sitting next to top-notch solvers Amy Reynaldo and Stan Newman. Neither was able to complete the final puzzle, with the hardest set of clues, in under 15 minutes. Amy told me that former champion Trip Payne took 17 minutes. Such was the feeling that the final puzzle was a killer diller, the A-level finalists were given 20 minutes to solve it instead of the usual 15.

Dan never paused. He filled in the grid’s final letters in a little under eight minutes. It should be said that Tyler Hinman and Howard Barkin, the other finalists, also turned in extraordinary times — somewhere between ten and twelve minutes. But Dan is simply solving on some higher plane. It’s amazing to watch — and I have to imagine that we’ll be watching it for years to come.

Congrats to Dan, and to Tyler and Howard as well. See you next year in Stamford, CT. Now what did I do with that cold medicine?

Feb 122014

My daughter has been learning Javascript through Codeacademy’s online series of courses — ergo, I, too, have been learning Javascript. It’s been smooth sailing, more or less — we made a rock-paper-scissors game with no great difficulty, and we’re starting to wrap our minds around for loops and if statements.

Every once in a while, though, Codeacademy tells us to use a command without adequately instructing us on how to do that. And so, I turn to anybody still reading this moribund blog for an extra helping hand.

The command in question is push. I understand the basics of it — you use push to tack additional elements to the end of an established array. So if…

var dogs = ["poodle", "collie", "dachsund"];

…then the array “dogs” will now be equal to poodle,collie,dachsund,chihuahua. Pretty straightforward, so far.

The task at hand is to search for my daughter’s name in a string of text. This has been challenging, but graspable: We have a for loop that checks characters, one at a time, in a block of text. When one of those characters matches the first character of Lea’s first name, it pushes it into an array (an array that starts off empty), and then grabs the next two characters and pushes those into the array as well, first one and then the other.

Except it’s not working.

Let’s look at the code.

var text = ("yak yak yak yak Lea bladi bladi bladi Lea bladi yakity yakity Lea yakkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk");
var myName = ("Lea");
var hits = [];

Okay, that establishes the variables — the block of text; Lea’s name; the empty array. Here’s the troublesome bit:

for (var m = 0; m < text.length; m++); {
if (text[m] === 'L') {
for (var n = m; n < m + myName.length; n++); {

(Bah, WordPress won't let me do the indenting.)

So what's SUPPOSED to happen here is, when the mth character of the text matches L, the second for loop runs. That loop is supposed to push the nth character of the text into the array, plus the two that come after it. If I can check the value of a given character with text[m], then why can't I push that character with hits.push(text[n])?

Follow all that? Yes? Help?

I also can't figure out how to format an HTML web page so that when it encounters Javascript code, it runs it, so that we might take what we've learned out of the Codeacademy sandbox and try our luck in the real world. But that can be a problem for another day, I suppose.

Update: Already solved. We shouldn't have put semi-colons after the for statements -- it was as simple as that. Jeez. Thanks, Tyler!

Jan 232014

The answer to this puzzle…

Each answer word is found on a particular day of the month; that number also corresponds to a U.S. president. (What do aliens generally demand? “Take me to your leader.”) The answer word in that box can be found within the last name of that president… except for one of its letters. Those “alien” letters, read in order, spell out the phrase RONALD RAYGUN.

Jan 212014

Before this year’s Mystery Hunt, I came up with a “practice metapuzzle” for my team to solve. Want to give it a try? E-mail me ( if you’d like to confirm your answer.


When the aliens landed in your backyard and demanded what such aliens always demand, you thought, well, this isn’t likely to end well. Sure enough, a month later the little green men were still around. If only there was something you could show these outer-space freaks to let them know they better not mess with us…

Solved by: A bunch of people on Palindrome, and now Nathan Curtis and Todd McClary.

Jan 212014

Somewhere toward the end of the 2014 Mystery Hunt, my team, Palindrome, reached the runaround — a final series of puzzles even more dastardly than the puzzles we had experienced all weekend. We knew that another team had already won the event, finding a coin hidden on campus and earning the right and responsibility to organize the 2015 hunt. But this year’s organizing team was generous enough to keep the hunt going even after crowning a winner, and Palindrome, having struggled through the solving of 100+ diabolical puzzles all weekend, wanted to experience the endgame.

The problem was, we also had to clean up our headquarters and convert it back into plain old ordinary MIT classrooms, and part of that meant packing up our phone. So I did what any good team captain would do — I made my cell phone the new Official Team Phone. And while we waited for the runaround to begin, we kept plugging away on the puzzles we hadn’t managed to solve. Eventually there were only three such puzzles… and then two… and then one.

The final hole in our list of completed puzzles was called “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor,” and it involved watching clips of a popular Web series called “My Drunk Kitchen.” The audio for the clips didn’t match what was happening on screen, and the puzzle was to figure out the correlation between the video and the audio track — somehow there was a way to use this information to arrive at an answer. We couldn’t figure it out. We called in what felt like a hundred guesses, some of them educated, some of them borderline random. My cell phone rang more in those few hours than in the entire previous year. Again and again I would answer and hear, “Hello, is this Palindrome?” “Hello, is this Palindrome?” “Hello, is this Palindrome?” Followed by the bad news that we had the wrong answer yet again.

One solitary hole out of over a hundred puzzles, and we couldn’t fill it no matter what we tried to do.

Well, fine. Instead we packed up our stuff and went on the runaround. Mystery Hunt puzzles cover a wide range of subjects, from pop culture to science, from linguistics to who-knows-what. Most of them are essentially paper puzzles — you download them from a Web site and print them out if you want to. The puzzles in the endgame, however, have recently become supersized, leaping off the computer screen. This year we had to get a record player working without electricity and without a phonograph needle; we had to dismantle a gigantic, impressively constructed puzzle box; we had to assemble three chessboards and then solve the chess problems thereupon, using the peculiar rules of “Alice Chess.” (The entire weekend was themed to Alice in Wonderland.)

And then, the grand finale -– a lifesize logic maze. Alice and the White Rabbit were traveling around this maze according to certain rules. We had to figure out how to get Alice out while keeping the Rabbit in. (There was really a young lady dressed in a blue pinafore, and an actor in long white rabbit ears.) It took over an hour and several failed attempts. There was real jubilation when Alice finally stepped out of the maze sans rabbit -– we had done it! We were one of only eight teams to see the Hunt all the way to the end.

We tried not to think about that one puzzle that had gotten away from us, the slight stain on our victory. “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor!” What on earth had we missed in that puzzle? Why had it eluded us? Lord, was it irksome, thinking of that one small hole on a blackboard covered with solved puzzles. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

After the Hunt, there is always a wrapup -– hundreds of satisfied puzzlers gather in a large auditorium to hear from the constructors and swap anecdotes. I am rarely able to attend the wrapup, and this year was no exception. It was held the following day, shortly before I had to make a train. But my friend Mike managed to get a livestream of the event going on his laptop, so we watched for a while from our hotel room. On the screen, the audience murmured, waiting for things to start.

My cell phone rang. I answered it. A voice said, “Hello, is this Palindrome?”

“Uh,” I said. The Hunt had ended the previous day. How was I still getting these calls? “Are you kidding?” I asked.

“Not at all!” said the voice. “Is this Palindrome?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess so.” In the background on the phone, I could hear the same murmuring sounds of an audience waiting for the wrapup to start. My caller was calling me from that very auditorium.

“This is Alice Shrugged.” That was the name of the organizing team. “And I’m calling to verify your answer to ‘One Tequila.’”

“Someone called in an answer?” I repeat that the Hunt had ended the previous day.

“Yes, indeed!” said the caller. “And your answer… is correct!”

I couldn’t believe it. “Our answer is correct? We solved the last puzzle?”

“You did! Congratulations!”

A moment later, on my friend’s laptop screen, I heard that same guy say into the microphone, “Palindrome has officially solved 100% of this year’s Hunt puzzles!” And the audience erupted into cheers.

Okay, there should probably be an asterisk by that statistic, seeing as the last answer was called in after the official end of the Hunt, but if the Hunt organizers themselves are cool with it, then who am I to argue?

Every. Puzzle. Solved!

Jan 192014

I may or may not have a gigantic wrap-up post about the MIT Mystery Hunt, which ended a few hours ago. My team, Palindrome, placed either sixth or seventh — reports vary — but we had a very fun time as always. After the puzzles are posted, I’ll point to a few faves.

In the meantime, though, I feel I must share with a wider audience this bit of genius created by my friend Kevin Wald. Each year’s Mystery Hunt has a theme, and for a while, every indication was given that this year’s theme was going to be a Salute to Academia, or something. (It wound up being a trip through Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, but that came later.) In support of the phony academia theme, teams were invited to submit proposals for a symposium, complete with a wordy, obtuse title and an impenetrable abstract. Kevin’s proposal is as follows, and I invite you to remember that our team name is “Palindrome.”

Creation of Centrally-Reflective Wordplay Through Computationally-Assisted Models.

Abstract: Constructs that process any subordinate symbols assembled symmetrically into segmented strings, when analyzed properly, are those that demonstrate parameters characterizing these “palindromes.” These characterizing parameters demonstrate that those are properly analyzed when strings, segmented into symmetrically assembled symbols, subordinate any process that constructs abstract models, assisted computationally through wordplay reflective, centrally, of creation.