Jul 142009

On Friday, I impulsively joined a tour group heading for the National Cryptologic Museum.

At the museum, I got to play with an actual Enigma machine, used by the Germans to send “unbreakable” coded messages. Our tour guide asked for a volunteer to send a coded message, and that was where I stepped up, setting the rotors, pushing the keys, and noting the encoded ciphertext. A second volunteer, Darren Rigby, then stepped up to decode the received message.

Shortly after this demonstration, three different people informed me, independently of each other, that in effect, Darren Rigby had received a coded message from Berlin.

Jul 142009

Do you live in Russia? Are you a writer? Did someone give your book a disfavorable review? Take ‘em to court!

On April 23, 2009, a federal district court in the southern Russian province of Dagestan issued an unprecedented ruling, ordering a journalist of a local newspaper to pay compensation in an amount equal to US$1,000 to a writer who did not like a review of his book published in the newspaper. The plaintiff, an author whose work of fiction was reviewed in the publication’s book review section, sued the reviewer, claiming that the author and his family had experienced severe mental suffering and that his professional reputation was damaged as a result of the review. The writer stated that after reading the book review, he experienced chest pains, headache, and elevated blood pressure. He demanded to be compensated in the amount of US$150,000. Both parties were dissatisfied with the court ruling and expressed their intention to appeal.

Jul 132009

Highlights from the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League:

– Todd McClary long ago proved himself a masterful game designer, and yet he always manages to outdo himself. His presentation “Drawing Conclusions” was staggering in its originality and its genius. At the start of the game, each member of a team of three players had to memorize a different set of little drawings, and then recreate them on a translucent sheet of paper. I thought to myself, “Aha, very cute — next we’ll stack the sheets on top of each other and see if we can identify the finished drawings. Very clever.”

That would have indeed been clever, but Todd is not merely “clever.” The curveball he threw us was far more staggering. Each team was given a bunch of trivia questions. Some of these questions could only be answered by stacking sheets 1 and 2 on top of each other. For others, you had to look at sheets 2 and 3. Another set required sheets 1 and 3. And finally, there was a set of questions that required you, at last, to stack all three sheets on top of each other.

And yes, the drawings you created altered themselves depending on how you combined the sheets. One drawing started out as a bunch of dots, but transformed into the constellation Orion, and then became a pair of dice, and then became a pool table. Another drawing began life as the capital letter H, but then became the Arc de Triomphe, and then became a castle.

My team did only so-so, missing a few questions that we really should have known. But, honestly, I would have joined in the standing ovation this game received even if we had missed every single question. Few game and puzzle experiences are this satisfying.

– If that wasn’t enough, Todd also ran an older game of his after hours, a straightforward variation on Categories. In “Octagories,” you need to name something in a category that contains a particular letter. Unlike in the standard parlor game, the letter need not begin your word. You can choose a word that contains that letter anywhere in the first eight positions. The trick is, you don’t want anybody else to put the target letter in that same position — if for “Presidents” and the target letter A, you choose CARTER and your opponent chooses TAFT, you match, because both of you have an A in the second position. The more people you match, the more points you get. You don’t want to get points.

I myself got a lot of points. Something about this game defeats the player’s ability to psychologically outwit his opponents. At one point I decided to be extra clever and only think up words where the target letter was at the beginning. Half of my opponents did the exact same thing.

– After-hours gaming remains a highlight of the convention. Besides Octagories, there were several homemade versions of Jeopardy, and these are always more fun than the televised game show. I actually won my friend Jeffrey Schwartz’s game — a rare occurence. And while I lost big in Dan Katz’s game, it was worth the playing just to hear him talk like a pirate.

– This was the first time I brought a child to the convention. Alex stayed at his grandparents, and Lea came along with us. She was worried at first, and claimed to be shy, but she turned out to be talkative and open with my friends, perhaps sensing that these are the nicest people in the world.

During our free time, we all went to Baltimore’s Science musuem, which Lea liked so much that she and J went back the next day, too. (She spent about nine hours total in there!) We rented a dragon-shaped paddleboat and steered it around the harbor. We ate some terrific fried seafood.

Each year’s convention culminates in a Saturday-night “extravaganza” of puzzles, and this year it was a through-the-hotel treasure hunt by Will Shortz. It was my intention that Lea join us for the treasure hunt, and I conspired to form a team that would not be bothered by the presence of a seven-year-old girl. Luckily my longtime friends Jon and Julian both planned on taking the evening casually and non-competitively, and so we joined up, along with my wife and a young puzzler named Kyle.

My teammates were very sweet, allowing Lea to participate at every possible opportunity. This was restricted, for the most part, to retrieving the envelopes we discovered as we ran about the hotel — the puzzles themselves were too hard. One puzzle, however, was a basic word search, and we made sure that Lea was able to find some of the words herself, which delighted her.

I was concerned, at first, that Kyle was going to be a little too intense for this laid-back approach. Early on, when a traffic jam of puzzlers in the lobby forced us into a long wait for an elevator, Kyle decided to run on ahead — up 37 flights of stairs (!) to the next clue. We tried to talk him out of it, but he was too bouncy to wait, and off he went. He wound up beating us there only by seconds.

Later, he again ran off to verify where we needed to go next. When we caught up, he confirmed that he had indeed found the next puzzle. “Well, where’s the envelope?” I asked.

He looked surprised. “I was waiting for our designated clue getter,” he said. He’d run madly on ahead, but was still content to let Lea do her thing.

After each puzzle, I asked Lea if she wanted to continue. The extravaganza had started after her usual bedtime, and the event proved to be every bit as exhausting as the term “through-the-hotel treasure hunt” made it sound. Even though we weren’t competing, there were still a lot of stairs to climb, and what felt like miles of walking back and forth between the main hotel and the convention center next door. Lea kept up with us fine…

…until her inevitable crash. About ninety minutes in, J was holding her as we solved another puzzle, and she put her head on her mother’s shoulder. When she lifted it back up again, tears were streaming down from her eyes. Exhaustion had struck like a bolt of lightning. J brought Lea back to the hotel room, and she was sleeping about three minutes later.

When she woke up the next morning, the first question out of her mouth was, “Did you find the treasure?” We had, and by mutual consent the team had decided to give it to Lea. “It’s right next to you,” I told her. She threw the covers off so she could see: A bag full of chocolate coins. “Can I have one for breakfast?” she asked. I said yes.

– It is amazing to me how many of my friends — even some of my closest friends — I somehow managed to barely see over the weekend. It all goes by so fast, and there are so many puzzles to solve and games to play, and the next thing you know it’s Sunday. We were gone before breakfast, so we could make the long drive back to Connecticut and rescue our dog from the kennel. My apologies to anybody I accidentally snubbed. Let’s co-solve a cryptic next year in Seattle, okay?

Jul 082009

It finally occurred to me to click on the book that Amazon has consistently paired with the paperback of Winston Breen, David Lubar’s Punished. Here’s the review from School Library Journal:

Logan knows he shouldn’t have been playing tag in the library reference stacks and he’s sorry that he crashed into Professor Wordsworth. But what did the strange old man mean when he said that Logan should be punished? Suddenly, the boy starts speaking in puns really awful puns and he can’t stop. His family and friends think he’s just smarting off, but Logan quickly realizes that he is under a curse. According to the professor, there is only one way to break the spell. Logan has three days to collect seven oxymorons, seven anagrams, and seven palindromes or the pun-ishment will continue forever. This lighthearted fantasy would be an excellent classroom read-aloud. The language concepts are deftly explained and the clever, wordplay-filled dialogue provides numerous examples. There is an emphasis on problem-solving and self-reliance as well. Logan uses the dictionary and experiments with Scrabbleâ„¢ tiles as he races against the clock to find the required answers. The short text and lively cover art will attract young readers, who will howl at the atrocious puns and repeat them at the earliest opportunity. Be prepared for an epidemic of juvenile punsters.

So I’ve managed to completely miss a kids’ book about wordplay, and one that’s been right in front of my face every time I peek at my Amazon ranking. I shall have to rectify this in the very near future.