Dec 272005

The Puzzles of the Year: (Contains spoilers!)

I need to be a little better at noting standout puzzles, so I can recap at the end of the year. I’m sure there are dailies in the Times and the Sun, from earlier in the year, that deserve accolades. Right now, the only daily puzzle that leaps to mind is the fairly recent “Water Water Everywhere” puzzle by Lee Glickstein and Craig Kasper — unchecked spaces in the grid are all filled in with the word “water,” to make phrases with the word both in front and in back of the space. And they put a water-related quote in there as well. Great construction.

Oh wait — there was a second daily-size puzzle. Ben Tausig’s syndicated puzzle a few weeks back had an extemely clever salute to Tetris. Besides the usual theme entries, the black squares in the puzzle formed the various Tetris shapes — the L, the T, the square, and that most valuable piece of all, the straight line. I love it when the black squares are used in the theme of the puzzle — there aren’t too many crossword ideas where that can work.

But for me, the real wowzers of the year were both Sunday puzzles in the Times. The first came way back in January: “Smooth Move” by Derrick Niederman. This spectacular grid encompassed two full-size chessboards, with the pieces incorporated as rebuses within the fill. (So you had, for instance, the entry “marQUEE Names.”) The two grids were almost exactly the same, except that an unseen player had made a single move, putting the white king in mate. And CHECKMATE was worked in as theme entry as well. This is why the term “tour de force” was invented.

The other Sunday came in March, from the always innovative Patrick Merrill. His “Laboratory Maze” featured the word RAT 18 times — backwards, forwards, up and down. After completing the puzzle, you could trace a path through the grid, from corner to corner, passing over the 18 rats as you went along. Amazing.

Update: Craig Kasper has alerted me that his puzzle is even better than I thought — not only do the unchecked spaces get filled with “water” to make new words or phrases, but the two words connected by the unchecked space themselves make a phrase. (For example FIRE(water) and (water)WORKS — without the water, you have FIREWORKS.) Unbelievable.

Dec 262005

Tis the season to spread hoaxes, fa la la la la… A few weeks ago, I linked to the story of a French fella who, upon meeting the woman he’d been flirting with online for many months, discovered it was his mother. Turns out this is not remotely true, and I am kicking myself for not realizing it. Even as I was blogging about it, I was studiously ignoring the odor emanating from this passage of the original story:

Just as the mortified mother and son realized the error of their ways, a patrolman passed by and cited them for visiting a restricted beach after dark.

“Danny and I were so flustered, we blurted out the whole story to the cop,” recalled matronly mom Nicole, 52. “The policeman wrote a report, a local TV station got hold of it — and the next thing we knew, our picture and our story was all over the 6 o’clock news. “People started pointing and laughing at us on the street — and they haven’t stopped laughing since.”

Boy, it seems obvious in retrospect, doesn’t it? They blurted out the whole story to a cop? That certainly brings new definition to the word “flustered.” And note the gap between “the policeman wrote a report” and “a local TV station got a hold of it.” How did that work exactly? All in all, I shoulda seen it coming. That the story originated with the Weekly World News only compounds my folly.

The other recent hoax, which thankfully I did not blog about: The student at the University of Massachusetts who was visited by Federal agents because he requested Mao’s Little Red Book via interlibrary loan. He’s since owned up, but not before Ted Kennedy cited the story with alarm in a newspaper op-ed piece. Don’t worry, Ted, it happens to the best of us. Let’s both of us resolve to be less gullible in 2006.

Dec 252005

Christmas Trivia. Here in the New York metropolitan area, WPIX has a Christmas morning tradition: The Yule Log. If you don’t have your own fireplace, WPIX will happily provide one for you, with three solid hours of a camera aimed at a roaring fire, while Christmas songs play in the background. (They also assume you don’t have a stereo.) Even for us non-celebrants, the Yule Log is hypnotizing television. It’s sincere, but also completely ridiculous. A nice roaring fire is, I’m sure, a cozy touch on Christmas morning… but you’d think at least a part of that is because of the heat generated by the fire. A televised fireplace is like something out of an Escher print — an impossible object that is nonetheless right here in front of you.

And now for the trivia question: Where was the very first televised Yule Log filmed?

Dec 242005

Sometimes the headlines just write themselves. What headline would you give to a news story about a group of prisoners who establish an acting troupe that focuses on the works of Shakespeare? The correct answer is here.

(Via Doug Petch.)

Dec 222005

Advanced Chess Metaphors. A friend of mine is a newspaper reporter. He just interviewed someone who gave him the following quote:

“Withdrawal of the American troops [from Iraq] is the actual stone in the chess game at this time – even among those who are outwardly working with the American administration.”

His question: Stone in the chess game? What the hell does that mean? Have any of you puzzle-lovin’, game-playin’ readers ever heard it before? If so, where? What does it mean?

Dec 222005

Sometimes fate is on your side. And what did the wife find at the Goodwill Store, just half a mile from my front door? A genuine pirate-y treasure chest. Solid wood. Metal bands across the top. Well-worn, but that just adds to the effect. Took two people to get it into the car. Purchase price: $20.00. Have I mentioned on this blog lately how much I love my wife?

Dec 222005

More on Warrantless Searches. In the comments to this post, my friend Drew suggested that the pro-warrantless-searches comments by former Clinton legal eagle Jamie Gorelick were taken out of context. Now Think Progress steps forward to flesh out that argument a little:

In the National Review, Byron York has an article called ?Clinton Claimed Authority to Order No-Warrant Searches.? In it, he cites then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick?s July 14, 1994 testimony where she argues ?the President has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes.?

Here is what York obscures: at the time of Gorelick?s testimony, physical searches weren?t covered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It?s not surprising that, in 1994, Gorelick argued that physical searches weren?t covered by FISA. They weren?t. With Clinton?s backing, the law was amended in 1995 to include physical searches.

York claims that, after the law was amended, ?the Clinton administration did not back down from its contention that the president had the authority to act when necessary.? That?s false. Neither Gorelick or the Clinton administration ever argued that president?s inherent ?authority? allowed him to ignore FISA.

Within the hour, Byron York was back: “[Their] position appears contradicted not only by Gorelick’s testimony but by a statement she made to Legal Times in November 1994, several months after her testimony, in which she said, “Our seeking legislation in no way should suggest that we do not believe we have inherent authority.”

I’m inclined to believe York, if only because his assertion is backed up by the long list of scenarios in which the Clinton administration felt warrantless searches were justified, as detailed in this Cato Report.

Dec 222005

Unclear on the concept. One of my company’s products is “The Crosswords Club,” a monthly mailing of six high-quality Sunday-size crossword puzzles. In the January issue, we’ve included a survey, the heart of which seeks the respondent’s opinion about each of the six puzzles. Was it too hard? Too easy? Did you enjoy it? We include a handy little table, so you can tell us specifically that the first puzzle was too hard, but the second was just right.

In the very first survey I opened up today, the respondent wrote a single sentence across the entire table: “I HAVEN’T SOLVED THEM YET.”

Okay! Well, thanks for getting the survey back to us so fast!

Dec 222005

Good writeup on the Jose Padilla case over at Kevin Drum’s blog. You know the judge who ruled against the Bush administration has landed a decisive blow, because the National Review’s blog hasn’t mentioned it even once.

Update: Jacob Sullum: “It’s the judicial equivalent of a bitch slap.”