A shorter-than-usual ACPT wrap-up

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?

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It’s a Push

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"];
dogs.push("chihuahua")

…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++); {
hits.push(text[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!

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Invasion! answer

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.

1 RASH (WASH)INGTON R
2 DOMS A(DAMS) O
3 FERN JEF(FERS)ON N
8 BARE VAN (BURE)N A
10 LYLE (TYLE)R L
13 DILL (FILL)MORE D
14 PIERRE (PIERCE) R
16 COLA LIN(COLN) A
18 GRAY (GRAN)T Y
22 VEGA CLE(VELA)ND G
26 ROUSE (ROOSE)VELT U
28 WINS (WILS)ON N
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One More Meta

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 (ericberlin@gmail.com) if you’d like to confirm your answer.

Invasion!

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.

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Gotta Catch Them All

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!

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Accepted in all the most prestigious journals

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.

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Why the heck not? The return of Spaghetti

It’s been a while since we’ve played Spaghetti. Let’s correct that, shall we?

What is Spaghetti, you ask? It’s simple. I present to you a set of words, chosen at random out of a dictionary. You pretend those words are a puzzle. You solve the puzzle, tying all the words together in some magical way to give you an answer. That may sound ridiculous and impossible — how do you solve a list of random words?? — but in the past people have made some amazing connections between the words, arriving at answers that seem utterly logical. Pop “spaghetti” into the search bar on the right to go find some examples in the archives.

Put your answer, and your method for getting to that answer, in the comments. Check back and read other players’ answers and explanations, and vote for your favorites. (You can vote for as many as you like.) The person who gets the most votes is the winner.

Ready for your words? Good, because here they are:

HORDE
MENFOLK
REVITALIZE
WHEEZY
BASKET

Good luck!

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Feast of Puzzles

I’ve spoken to a lot of kids over the past few years, about puzzles and about my Winston Breen books, and one question that always comes up is this: Are the books real? Are they based on things that actually happened?

I tell the kids that, like Winston, I participate in puzzle hunts all the time — events where I get to solve puzzles with my friends, and we try to solve everything as fast as we can, racing other teams to the finish line. 99% of the time, the puzzles we solve are simply given to us on pieces of paper: Here’s a crossword, here’s a clever spin on a word seek, here are some logic puzzles. That’s fine; I love pencil puzzles. And what more can we expect? The people who put together puzzle hunts do so on their own time, and any money they spend comes out of their own wallets. Sure, it would be nice to have extra-special puzzles, puzzles that leap off the printed page, puzzles that require special props, or a cast of actors, or amazing locations — but that kind of thing gets expensive, fast.

So while Winston Breen and his friends get the opportunity to solve a puzzle that has been painted onto the cars of a Ferris wheel, that is not the kind of thing your average die-hard puzzle lover will ever get to experience in real life.

Unless that die-hard puzzle lover participates in a Game.

I first read about The Game many years ago, I forget in which magazine. It depicted a puzzle event like no other. Teams drove around all night in rented vans, solving puzzles at different locations — and these puzzles were anything but usual. When you play The Game, you might be sent to an art museum in the middle of the night — and the puzzle might be found in the very paintings on the wall. A puzzle might come in the form of a box of candy, or an intricately constructed device. That first article I read described a puzzle in the form of an out-of-control house party full of thuggish youths, and half the goal was simply recognizing that this was, indeed, the puzzle, and daring yourself to walk in.

A key element of The Game is this: It costs serious money to play it. Which means that the puzzlemakers have a sizable budget. Which means they can do pretty much anything they want, as long as they have the imagination and the expertise to make it happen.

This past weekend I finally participated in my first Game — “The Famine Games,” an event produced and largely constructed by Todd Etter. It is fair to say that it is the most ambitious, dazzling puzzle hunt I have ever experienced.

“The Famine Games” was part parody / part faithful retelling of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy, reproduced in the form of puzzles. Twenty-four teams of 4 to 7 people became sets of tributes, sent off into the arena to kill off the other teams or die trying. From there, teams had to rise up against the corrupt government of Pangram, and finally storm the Capitol — a role portrayed by the actual United States Capitol building, as the setting of “The Famine Games” was Washington, D.C. and its environs.

Yes, among the weekend’s 70 puzzles, there were many pencil puzzles, such that you might see in any decent puzzle hunt — although in this case all the puzzles were meticulously constructed and polished to a high gleam. (I don’t recall seeing a single correction or errata. This is borderline miraculous.) But peppered among the more typical fare were puzzles to make even the most experienced puzzle-solver sit back and say “Wow!”

– One puzzle arrived in the form of Lincoln Logs, which needed to be stacked in exactly the right way in order to reveal a message. Another puzzle was presented as a small house of black-and-white Legos, the construction of which contained coded instructions. After cracking the code, we had to dismantle the house and then build it back up again in a new way. The reconstructed house spelled out a series of letters on the walls; that was the answer to the puzzle.

– Modified store-bought toys are all well and good, but we were also given astonishing, specially manufactured gizmos. The best of these by far was a gorgeous wooden cube studded with electronic readouts and sensors and etched all around with a cryptographic code. Deciphering the cryptogram, we learned that each side of the cube was keyed to a different superhero (or villain) from the X-Men series — Iceman, Magneto, Surge, Jean Grey, etc. It turned out that we had to do something to each side of the cube that was in keeping with the various X-Men. So when we placed a magnet against Magneto’s side of the cube, the electronic readout gave us a letter. When we placed an ice cube against the sensor on the Iceman side, we got a different letter. And so on. Pretty damn amazing, right? And I have barely scratched the surface on what it took to actually solve this puzzle, which had to do with binary code and using the various X-Men superpowers in combination with each other. The “Xbox,” as it was called, was one of perhaps a half-dozen puzzles that left me shaking my head with awe.

– Even the puzzles that were largely paper-and-pencil affairs were presented with joyous theatricality. A nifty hexagonal word seek involving bees actually required you to first wander into a park and cut down a plastic beehive from a tree. Another puzzle was presented at a veterinarian’s office / dog kennel, where we were greeted by a woman in a dog suit. The puzzle itself was given to us inside a stuffed canine —
we had to snip it open to reach it. A whole series of puzzles took the form of a box of cereal, complete with toy surprise. We were sent to a comic-book store; to a Denny’s; to suburban backyards and the Kennedy Center; to museums and memorials and finally to the Capitol Building itself.

– The highlight of the event was perhaps a twelve-puzzle mini-hunt embedded within the larger hunt. Hosted in the wee hours at a community center in Springfield, VA, each puzzle could be found in a separate room — and each puzzle was an imaginative combination of props and physical challenges. In one room, we had to complete three different electric circuits, using nothing but a cylinder of Play-Doh, some sections of plastic piping, a pitcher of water, and a metal bowl. In another room, we had to open three different locks in order to get at the puzzle. One small problem: We had to wear oven mitts. In yet another room, the puzzle in its entirety consisted of a flashing lightning bolt made out of white Christmas lights. Did I mention that each of the twelve puzzles had to be solved in fifteen minutes or less, and if you couldn’t manage it, you had to leave the room and come back later?

I was lucky to be on a team with Dan Katz, who can read puzzles the way normal people read their native language. At a glance, he can tell if a given puzzle will require the use of Braille, or Morse, or semaphore, or some other, totally made-up code. Everyone on the team helped shoulder the puzzle load — I had a few good moments myself, I’m happy to say. But Dan is on a whole other plane of puzzle-solving ability. It’s hard to imagine we would have solved even half as many puzzles without him.

And supersolvers were mandatory — mere enthusiasm for puzzles was not enough. Teams needed to keep a brisk solving pace, lest they risk getting “skipped” past future puzzles, missing them entirely. Some puzzles needed to shut down at a particular time; more generally, Game Control wisely wanted to keep the twenty-four teams reasonably close together as they made their way through the event. From an organizational standpoint, it would be deeply problematic to have a few teams lingering hours and hours behind everybody else.

I wonder, then, if this weekend-long feast of puzzles didn’t perhaps have too many puzzles in it. How many teams actually saw every single one of them? My guess is, not many. I thought my team acquitted itself fairly well — there was a long stretch where, puzzle after puzzle, we never even slowed down. We saw what we needed to do; we compiled all the right information; we decoded the resulting message and got our answer; and boom, we were back in our van and heading to the next location. I’d say we only got seriously stuck twice, maybe three times — out of 70 puzzles, that’s not too shabby. And yet looking at the puzzle list, I see that we were skipped past at least one puzzle and possibly more. Did every team have the equivalent of a Dan Katz on their team? If not, how many puzzles did they miss?

If Dan was our MVP, the team’s Least Valuable Player is equally easy to assign: That would be the Chevrolet Express, the van that was our home for the duration of the event. This was a much larger vehicle than we had intended to rent. We had a team of six, and would have been fine in something that could seat eight. The Express could have sat twelve people comfortably and a few more than that without much trouble; it was roughly the size of the Space Shuttle. It was certainly the largest thing I had ever attempted to drive. I split the driving duties with my friend and teammate Scott Purdy, and between the two of us, we amassed an exhausting catalog of misadventures: Quasi-legal U-turns; missed exits and wrong turns, which on DC’s unforgiving roads usually meant a twenty-minute delay before getting back on track; at least one missed-by-inches serious car accident (me); one collision with a parking garage ticket machine (Scott). At one point, I had to parallel park this monstrosity — the less said about that one, the better. At another point, I managed to get us stuck on a 75-degree downward slope. If I am sent to hell after I die, I imagine I will spend eternity looking for a parking spot near the National Mall.

The business with the van reached its ugly culmination when we got back to it after completing the final puzzles of the event: Someone had broken into it and helped himself to my iPad and my teammate’s laptop. I understand this was not strictly the van’s fault — another team got hit in the same manner — but it felt like somehow the van hated us and decided not to put up much of a fight when somebody wanted to take our stuff.

Did the robbery put a damper on things? Yes, but not as much as you’d expect. The event was just too damn good. I would do it all again even knowing up front I wouldn’t have my iPad at the end of it. The magnificent variety of puzzles, the production values, the enthusiastic volunteers — this was all worth far more than I paid. Yes, staying up all night wasn’t easy, and that damn van was a constant thorn in our sides. But “Apetitius Giganticus” was a great team — besides Dan Katz and Scott Purdy, I got to hang out for the weekend with Tyler Hinman, Rachael Groynom, and Pavel Curtis. I got to have a couple of nice brainstorms that helped propel our team forward, and that’s always a joyous moment. Ultimately, I left “The Famine Games” achy, exhausted, and hungry for more.

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Let the word-of-mouth campaign begin!

If you like puzzles, I think you can consider this a Big Announcement.

I work for a company that produces puzzle magazines. Easy crosswords, word seeks, sudokus — a great many of the magazines you see on the supermarket newsstand. We have something like eighty different titles.

For a long time, we’ve batted around the idea of doing a product to attract people who love puzzles but who have not bought a newsstand puzzle magazine in a long time. Something a little higher-end, a little more artisanal… if it was an ice cream, it would be super premium ice cream.

In early 2014, this magazine will finally exist. It is called Will Shortz’s WordPlay. Yes, that’s Will Shortz’s name on the cover. We’ve got the first issue completely planned out, and all I have to say is, you will not believe how many great puzzles we have packed into this magazine. Dazzling variety puzzles, a couple of great cryptics, handmade logic puzzles, plus a few things you’ve never seen before. And we’re going to do it six times a year!

Why am I bringing this up in June when the magazine doesn’t go on sale until January? Because we need to start spreading the word. The only way this wonderful magazine succeeds is if people buy it — and before people buy it, they have to know about it. (I don’t have a marketing degree or anything, but that is my understanding of how things work.) So now you know about it, and I’m asking you to spread the news. Tell every puzzle lover you know! Tell everyone who might be a puzzle lover! Send them this way so they can read this exciting announcement! Forgive me in advance for repeating this news periodically until the magazine finally goes on sale!

Yep, I’m pretty excited about this. Believe me, if you like great puzzles, you should be, too.

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The probability that I know what I am talking about is zero

All right, math people, help me out.

I just completed a section on probability with my daughter, and by and large she’s got it down. We both understand that if you flip a coin and roll a die, the probability of getting tails and a five is 1/12. (You multiply the odds of getting tails (1/2) by the odds of getting a five (1/6).) We made a little pie chart to show why this works and… well, I’m not going to drone on about this, but in short: Lea not only understands how to do the calculation, but she understands why. And so do I.

Similarly, we understand that the probability of rolling a two or a three on a 6-sided die is 1/3. This is even easier to grasp: The odds of rolling a two are 1/6; the odds of rolling a three are 1/6. Add ‘em up, and you get 2/6, or 1/3. No problemo — the reasons for this are pretty easy to visualize.

You add up the probabilities when the “or” events are, as the math textbook tells us in boldfaced words, mutually exclusive. You can’t roll a five and a six on a single roll of the die. (Although God knows when I ask Lea if this is possible — just so I can see that she’s with me — she’ll say something about the die rolling into a crack on the table, or bring up the idea of a time machine, or…)

It’s when two events aren’t mutually exclusive that my mind goes kabloo. The example in the book is:

The Yankees have a .4 chance of winning today’s baseball game. The Red Sox have a .6 chance of winning their baseball game. (This was obviously written by a Red Sox fan.) What is the probability that one team or the other will win, assuming they are not playing each other?

The formula for this is straightforward enough: First you add up the probabilities (.4 + .6 = 1) and from this you subtract the product of the probabilities (.4 * .6 = .24). So the odds of one team or the other winning is .76, or 76%. Easy enough — I can memorize a formula, and so can my daughter. I just don’t get why this works. We were able to visualize and fully grasp the other principles in this section, but this one is eluding us.

Is there a way of looking at this that will make me say, “Oh! Sure!”

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