Oct 312006

Theodore Grey salts his popcorn:

Sodium is a soft, silvery metal that explodes violently on contact with water and burns skin by reacting with even the slightest moisture. Chlorine is a choking yellow gas, used with mixed success in the trenches of World War I (it was known to have killed about equal numbers on both sides of the trench). When these chemicals meet, they react in a fierce ball of spitting fire and clouds of white smoke. The smoke is sodium chloride (NaCl), or table salt, which I used to season a basket of popcorn I hung over the reaction.

He goes on to say, “The salt is very fresh, but the hazards of blowing pure chlorine into a bowl of liquid sodium are very real.” He demonstrates this rather succinctly in his video of the experiment. Still — hazards, schmazards. Sure, maybe there was a small problem with “flaming liquid sodium balls,” but hey: The salt is very fresh.

(Thanks to Mathpuzzle.com.)

Oct 312006

This headline on MSN is, thankfully, accompanied by a picture, and that helps to clarify things a little. But still… maybe this was a headline worth rethinking.

Speaking of odd headlines, I am also nettled by this spam subject line: “The ultimate cup of coffee every time.”

Oct 312006

Scott Adams:

I believe worries [about electronic voting machines] are totally misplaced. Now don’t get me wrong – there’s a 100% chance that the voting machines will get hacked and all future elections will be rigged.  But that doesn’t mean we’ll get a worse government. It probably means that the choice of the next American president will be taken out of the hands of deep-pocket, autofellating, corporate shitbags and put it into the hands of some teenager in Finland. How is that not an improvement?

Oct 312006

Part of the weekend was spent watching old, hysterically funny game show clips from Brian’s mammoth collection. Three highlights must be shared.

First, and my personal favorite, is a woman named Beverlie Peters, and her appearance on the game show Press Your Luck. As you may recall, in this game one answers trivia questions, and with each correct answer, one earns a “spin” of the large prize board. On the prize board are… uh, prizes, as well as whammies that must be avoided lest they bankrupt you. It became a near-religious ritual for a player to say “No whammy, no whammy, no whammy” any number of times before striking the plunger and freezing the board.

Press Your Luck had a tendency to cast, shall we say, enthusiastic contestants, and none more so than Beverlie. The first time something moderately exciting happened, I sat up a little straighter in my chair and said, “What is wrong with her face?” She had gone, for one fleeting second, crosseyed. But rather than crossing in, like someone trying to look at her own nose, they crossed up, like she was trying to see her brain. It was freaky. And it was only the beginning.

A few minutes later, Brian skipped to the moment where she wins a fairly large prize. The result is a woman clearly in need of immediate medical attention. Her eyes cross again, and… her mouth doesn’t merely widen in surprise. Rather, her entire lower jaw nearly detaches itself from her face. Taken out of context, the viewer would not be sure if she has just won a substantial amount of money or is about to eaten by Godzilla.

Oh, look! Here’s a pic. She’s the one on the left.

Next up was another Press Your Luck contestant, Karen Martin. As Brian found the right show on the disc, Trip said, “I think this woman is drunk or high.” After I’d watched Karen’s performance, I had to disagree. I thought it more likely that Karen Martin is simply, clinically, crazy.

She is also the walking personification of pure, undistilled game show greed. If you showed the Karen Martin episodes to Ebenezer Scrooge, he would say, “Damn, this lady has a problem.”

As I’ve already noted, Press Your Luck contestants had a habit of “talking” to the prize board in a superstitious effort to avoid the whammies. This usually took the form of, “Big bucks! Big bucks! No whammies! And… stop!” as they pushed the plunger and stopped the board.

For Karen, that was simply a starting point. The longer the show went on, the more unhinged became her monologues, until she was nearly screaming: “I WANT BIG MONEY! I WANT TO BE RICH! I WANT TO BE FILLLLLTHY RICH! WHAMMIES YOU CAN DROP DEAD! I WANT THE MONEY! GIVE ME THE MONEY! AND…. STOP!!!” Each success was greeted with what can only be described as a primal scream. And there is a moment, after she does indeed get a whammy and loses everything, where I thought she was going to kill the first person she could get her hands on.

Let’s see if there’s some video online… ah, yes, here we go.

Finally, Brian shared with me a game show of such breathtaking stupidity that I can still hardly believe it. There was some discussion afterward of bringing this video to a National Puzzlers’ League convention, so if you’re an NPLer and think you might want see this thing one day, and don’t want the surprise ruined, stop reading now.

The game show is called Winning Streak, and aired for about six months in late 1974. The bonus round for this show works like this: The contestant chooses a numbered tile, which is flipped over to reveal a letter. Let’s say that letter is “N.” The contestant then performs the following amazing feat: He has to think of a word — any word — ANY WORD AT ALL — that contains the target letter. On! No! Gun! Hand! Pen! As long as the word contains an N, the round continues. (At this point I jumped out of my chair shouting, “Get the hell out of here!”)

The contestant then chooses a second tile, and has to name a word containing both target letters. That’s right! An N and an R. Sure, it sounds easy, but… uh… No, it’s easy. Indeed, for a game show to get any easier, it would have to be called Tie Your Shoes For Money.

The cherry on the cake, however, is this: Contestants would quit after, like, four letters. They’ve got an N, R, E, and a T, and they quit, taking their winnings rather than choosing a fifth letter and possibly losing everything. And perhaps for these people back in 1974, that was the right strategy. After all, I watched one woman, faced with U, M, G, and N, offer up the word “UNMUG.” She lost everything. Two or three hundred dollars, gone!

You could show take the transcript of this game, cast it with modern actors, and show it word for word on Saturday Night Live, and no one would believe it to be anything other than a zany sketch. I still like it better than Deal or No Deal, however.

Oct 302006

I flew down to Florida this weekend to hang out with some friends from the National Puzzlers’ League, and take a shot at the Miami Herald Hunt, an annual puzzlefest created by Dave Barry and Tom Shroder.

Professional puzzle constructor Trip Payne and his partner Brian live in nearby Ft. Lauderdale and have done the Hunt over the last few years, and the story has always been the same: They get through the first few puzzles easily enough, but something calamatious and/or stupid happens on the all-important final puzzle, and they lose. And then, just to add insult to injury, the same damn team from Seattle wins again. With the help of myself and another puzzle lover, Todd McClary, we were hoping that this year we would eclipse the Seattlites, and take first prize. An NPL contingent has never won the Hunt, and we thought it was high time that changed.

The bulk of the Hunt, as always, consisted of five puzzles scattered across several blocks of downtown Miami. The puzzles are usually pretty good, although you can generally count on one complete stinker. The answer to each puzzle is a number. The numbers correspond to clues inside the Hunt Guide included in that morning’s newspaper. The five clues are then used in coordination with a “final clue” announced by Dave Barry.

So we had to solve the first five puzzles, and this we did with relative ease. Here are the puzzles:

  • We were handed a coupon by a lady in a toga. The coupon said “TAKE HALF OFF THE ENTIRE STORE,” and there was also a picture of the Roman Coliseum. It didn’t take us long to remember that a coliseum also appeared on the map in the Hunt Guide. We walked over to that location on the map, and found a supermarket: PUBLIX. Take half off that six-letter word, and you’re left with LIX, the Roman number for 59 and the answer to the puzzle.
  • At a small stage in a nearby mall, five local music students were singing opera while wearing football jerseys. The name of the opera was supposedly “Moon Over Miami,” and the set consisted entirely of a moon dangling overhead. Every so often, one of the opera singers would stand purposefully under the moon. We surmised that the number on his jersey was the answer to the puzzle, and that turned out to be right. This was this year’s stinker puzzle. You could almost see little comic-strip smell lines coming off of it.
  • At a clothing store situated on a street corner, we found four display windows, each featuring a mannequin. Each was naked save for a single item. The first was wearing several trains as a makeshift necklace. The second was wearing a vest. The third was wearing a tie. The last was wearing a T-shirt. TRAINS VEST TIE TEE. Sound it out… sort of… and you get “transvestite.” Around the corner at this store were three more mannequins, one of whom was clearly a male in a dress. The price tag of his dress showed the answer.
  • We kept coming across beautiful classic automobiles, but never at any of the coordinates where we were supposed to find puzzles. We figured they would work their way in somehow, and they did: We were handed a list of the cars and the map coordinates where each could be found. Four of the five cars had a NO symbol through them. The last, a Ford, did not. The Ford’s map coordinates were also missing, but luckily we knew where it was: At D8 on the map. The answer to the puzzle — which took us a while to get, and full marks to Brian for finally making the connection — was “Ford D8,” or 48.
  • We were handed an advertisement for two movies: A Clockwork Orange and North by Northwest. My brilliant idea was that if you drew two lines from the same point — one pointing north and another northwest — and pretended that it was the face of a clock, you had 10:00, or 1000. Eureka! The only problem was, inside the Hunt Guide was a clearly fake movie timetable, and we knew we had to use this somehow to get the puzzle answer. An hour or so later, someone glanced at the map and saw a clock and an orange. We went to that location and found a large compass rose on the ground. Looking north by northwest, we found ourselves staring at a movie poster for Mini’s First Time. One of the movies in the fake timetable was simply called Mini. The first showing of Mini – which is to say, Mini’s first time — was 11:45, and 1145 was the answer to the puzzle.

The Ford puzzle and the movie puzzle gave us a bit of trouble, but we still nailed everything down a solid half hour before the deadline, and that was with taking a long lunch. All we had to do now was listen to the final clue, put everything together, and victory would be ours.

The final clue was this: Count Dracula brought out seven other people wearing Halloween costumes: Frankenstein, the Devil, a witch, a skeleton, a pumpkin, a mummy, and Death. As we were four people with high IQs and lots of puzzle savvy, we quickly realized that each of these creatures could also be found, numerous times, on the map in the Hunt Guide. We quickly deduced that if we counted each Frankenstein, devil, witch, etc., we would have seven numbers: A phone number.

We did this. We got nothing helpful. Hmm. Perhaps we need to use our five clues somehow. But how?

I’ll spare you our tortured thought processes, as what few ideas we had were all wrong. Fifteen minutes later we were still struggling to get past step one on the endgame, while the same damn team from Seattle cruised, once again, over the finish line.

We soon learned that we had miscounted the number of Deaths on the map: We were off by one. That made our phone number just a wee bit inaccurate. After breezing through quite a few tricky puzzles and congratulating ourselves on our mighty brains, we were ultimately stumped by a task that my four-year-old daughter would have performed with ease.

We were pretty glum for a while there, until we remembered that we’d had a pretty good time anyway. And that there would be another Hunt next year. And that an NPL team has to win someday. Yes, our day will come.

Hopefully next year’s Hunt won’t ask us to do anything overly tricky. Like reciting the alphabet.

Oct 272006

Back in July, a music producer named Dallas Austin was caught in Dubai with a small bag of cocaine. (He was attending a birthday party for Naomi Campbell. And he was the only one caught with drugs?!) He was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.

But never fear! Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch — friend to all drug users — stepped up to the plate:

Senator Hatch made numerous phone calls on Mr. Austin’s behalf to the ambassador and consul of the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington… and served as an intermediary for Mr. Austin’s representatives, the producer’s lawyers said.

“The senator was one of a number of people who were very actively involved,” said Joe Reeder, the Washington lawyer, who, with an Atlanta colleague, Joel A. Katz, spent 10 days in Dubai working to secure Mr. Austin’s reprieve.

Mr. Katz, an entertainment lawyer, represents both Mr. Austin and the somewhat less musically successful Mr. Hatch, a singer and songwriter who has recorded religious-oriented albums.

So the Senator did this because he was a friend of a friend of Mr. Austin, right? Hey. Don’t be so cynical. Hatch intervened because he believes in rehabilitation, not retribution:

A spokesman for Mr. Hatch said that the senator was a proponent of rehabilitation for drug offenders, and that he had worked to revise federal sentencing guidelines regarding cocaine, and, through legislation in 2005, had advocated treatment for nonviolent offenders and the easing of restrictions on medication to treat heroin addiction.

In the statement Mr. Hatch said he was “confident that this talented young man will learn from this experience.”

Good for him! It takes a brave politician to stand up to the deeply ingrained phobia against recreational drugs, and the crazy meat grinder that is the “war on drugs.”

I assume we’ll be hearing from Senator Hatch again real soon, now that another young man has been caught in Dubai, this time with .14 ounces of marijuana. (I don’t know much about pot — can you even make a joint out of that small an amount? Isn’t that, like, a single leaf?) This poor schlub is facing the same exact jail time that Dallas Austin so skillfully avoided: Over four years.

So far, though, I’m sad to report, Hatch has been strangely quiet on this new matter, even though it’s identical in every way to the tragedy he helped avert back in July. Well, that’s not true — this new guy’s quantity of drugs is much less. And also, he hasn’t produced any Top 40 hits. Dude, if you were going to get in trouble in Dubai, you really should have thought ahead and produced a Top 40 hit!

You can write to Senator Hatch and ask why he hasn’t leapt into action.

I wonder if Dallas Austin might want to help out, too. Somebody should ask him.

Oct 272006

(That’s what this blog seems to be turning into, so I might as well go with it.)

I think I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do with today’s Tanga, but I still don’t have an answer. Aggravating…

San Jose Semaphore is an art installation by Ben Rubin… and it’s also a puzzle. He’s inviting all comers to try to break the code. I love big, public puzzles, even when I can’t solve ‘em.

Speaking of big, public puzzles, I’ll be in Florida this weekend for the Herald Hunt, a huge-ass puzzle event organized and run by the humor columnist Dave Barry. I’ve participated in this a few times before, and it’s always a blast. 10,000 or more people running around trying to solve puzzles! This is what the world should be like!

The Herald Hunt puzzles are usually all over the map in terms of quality and elegance, but the good ones always make up for the shaky ones. The puzzles are also literally all over the map, so I expect to be doing a whole lotta walking under the hot Florida sun. It’ll be exhausting, but a whole lot of fun. Expect a full report next week.

(Dave Barry notes that there is a Herald Hunt preview puzzle on the Miami Herald Web site.)

Oct 272006

So the president-elect of Mexico has compared the wall the U.S. will build along the Mexican border with the Berlin Wall. I guess it’s the obvious thing to do — after all, they’re both walls. But, gee, isn’t there an obvious distinction to be made between the two structures? Our wall, when it’s built, will (fail to) keep illegal immigrants from getting in. The Berlin Wall was erected to keep East Germany’s citizens from getting out, from escaping the oppression of the country. Any comparison between the two of them is the result of hysteria.

I have mixed feelings about the Mexico wall — or, anyway, about illegal immigration. (My thoughts about the wall are pretty straightforward: It’s not going to work.) I think there’s a perfectly valid left-wing argument against illegal immigration — namely, that it artificially suppresses wages at the low end of the scale, since illegals will work for much less than even the poorest American. Working conditions at such jobs are bound to remain bad, too, since who’s going to complain?

But I also have a difficult time applying the word “illegal” to someone who simply seeks to escape poverty. Something is truly screwed up when it becomes an illegal act to find a decent job and support one’s family. In this case, the key thing that is screwed up is not America but Mexico. Instead of comparing our wall with the Berlin Wall, shouldn’t Mexico’s president-elect be addressing the small matter of why so many of his people want to get the hell out?

Oct 262006

I had an interesting, and perhaps unique, reaction to today’s New York Times crossword. In the space of less than ten seconds I went from saying “I don’t understand this theme one solitary bit” to saying “Damn, this is the same theme I just sent to Will myself!”

This is not the first time I’ve been stumped about a crossword theme. Nor is it the first time I’ve solved a puzzle only to discover a theme similar to something I just did myself. But never before have those two experiences occurred on the same puzzle.

But anyway, yes, I just did something along these lines, too, albeit as a Sunday-sized grid. Todd and Dave, it must be said, executed the idea far more cleverly with their puzzle than I did with mine. But I’ll get paid more! (That is, if it ever gets accepted.)

Today’s Tanga puzzle totally makes up for yesterday. It kicks butt. I don’t understand one small part of it, but we can discuss that later.

Finally, when Microsoft sent the Firefox team a congratulatory cake, did they include a coded secret message? (My guess: No.)