BeaCon

Jul. 14th, 2017 03:46 pm
fauxklore: (Default)
So last week was the annual National Puzzlers’ League (NPL) convention. This year’s was in Boston, so it was a quick flight up and an easy trip from the airport via the Silver Line to South Station and shank’s mare to the hotel. The Hotel Revere is well-located, near the Boston Common. It is, however, a remarkably ugly building and triggered a number of my hotel peeves. But my rant on how much I hate pretty much all hotels is off topic here.

At any rate, I wasn’t at Con to spend time whining about my hotel room. First there was a picnic of sorts. It was on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, which turned out to be the rooftop of the parking garage (so, one took the elevator down to it). The food offerings consisted of a few different types of flatbread pizza. That was okay, albeit not what I think of as picnic fare. The drinks were pricy. But that is pretty much to be expected at big city hotels and, really, I was there to socialize. I’m fairly sure I didn’t see everybody I wanted to. I should probably note for those who are unfamiliar with NPL that we go by noms, not our real names, so I will refer to people that way.

Right after that, it turned out that Tortoise and Songlian were running It Takes Two and Donimo and I paired up for that. This was originally invented by Maso as Doubles Jeopardy and there are some special rounds where, say, one partner is blindfolded and has to identify plastic fruit handed to solve a clue that the other partner can see. Other clues have two parts and each partner has to answer one. Things can get fairly silly. I will keep things nebulous for obvious reasons, but I will note that the final round was particularly clever, with the two people having to guess the answers to each other’s clues. All in all, this was a very fun game – and a fine tribute to Maso’s memory.

After that, I did a miniganza by Kryptogram called Exquisite Inheritance, which was based on Exquisite Fruit questions from last year. I don’t remember who I solved it with, but will note that two of us (myself being one) had never heard of the answer.

My friend, Ron, had asked me if I had time to get together when I was in Boston and we settled on doing a couple of walk-around puzzles together, which also allowed him a taste of what NPL is about. Walk-arounds are one of the things I particularly appreciate about the NPL con, since they provide a fun way of seeing the city the con is in. We started with A Walk in the Park with /dev/joe, which consisted of several flats (i.e. cryptic clues in verse form) that led around the Public Garden. Fortunately, I’d been tipped off to an error in the instructions, so we went around clockwise. The flats were, in general, straightforward types – things like changing a letter or finding a homonym – versus some of the more recent types that are harder to figure out what to do with. At any rate, it was, indeed, a pleasant walk in the park and covered some of the more interesting sites in the park like the monument to ether.

We took a break with Rubrick’s Movie Remakes puzzle, which required changing one letter in a movie title to match a description of the “remade” movie. The results were often had us laughing out loud. We did get hung up on a few of the clues (in one case, because it was out of order) so I had a few to finish later on with a couple of other people.

Then we headed further afield via the T to do A Lazy Somerville Puzzle Stroll by Capital R and Ryma. This had 4 stops, with a puzzle at each. The only one that really caused us any hesitation was at the bike store, where we were confused about which direction the wheels turned to get from one letter to the next. At any rate, this was another pleasant walk with reasonably interesting and straightforward puzzles to solve along the way. We celebrated finishing it with ice cream at J. P. Licks. Since we were near Ron’s apartment at that point, he headed home, while I returned to the hotel.

I had a bit of a rest before meeting up with a group to go to dinner at Teranga, a Senegalese restaurant in the South End. I had never eaten Senegalese food before, so was especially looking forward to this. The food was delicious. I shared in an appetizer of acara, which was a fried black-eyed pea batter, and had a chicken dish called yassa guinaar for the main course. We had a largish group – 13 people – which made it impossible to talk to the people at the other end of the table, but everybody at the end I was at seemed happy.

Back at the hotel, it was time for the official program. I am sure I am not the only person who is relieved that intros are now limited to first timers. There’s still something of an icebreaker game. In this case, that was Shifting Gears by Shrdlu. The table was divided into walkers and sitters. Each round, the walkers moved to a new partner. The game itself involved finding a word to fit a given category using letters from both partners’ game sheets. The catch was that we hadn’t noticed that there were different sheets for walkers and sitters until a few people ended up with the same pair of letters repeated. It was still a good concept for a game, despite that bit of a setback.

Then came included by Murdoch, which involved extracting answers that fit a category from a series of sentences. You were also supposed to write your own sentence, but we didn’t have enough time to get to that part.

The biggest challenge of the evening was Cryptictionary by 530nm330Hz and Tortoise. This had teams coming up with cryptic clues, which had to be drawn in Pictionary style. Some of them were more challenging than others – and it was pretty clear that there was a wide range of artistic skill among the players. The clues were put up on two walls later on and we got to solve a cryptic puzzle with them, which was a lot of fun.

Then the over-the-weekend cryptics for pairs solving got handed out and it was time for more unofficial games. I joined a team for Slick’s GenCon Hunt. This was somewhat frustrating as parts of it involved some specific board game related knowledge and, while I do play board games, I don’t play a lot of them and am not really up to date. The lighting in the room (or lack thereof) was also a problem for a couple of the puzzles because it was hard to distinguish some colors. Mostly this served to convince me not to go to GenCon.


I’d intended to go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Friday. But I had slept reasonably late (and would actually have slept a bit later had it not been for a spam call on my mobile) and the weather was kind of crappy. So there was time for more puzzles and games. That included solving the Cryptictionary clues (with a large enough group that I won’t attempt to list everyone), pair solving two of the con cryptics (I did Boston Garden with Neendy and Outside the Box with Lyric), and playing Capital R’s Mystery Jeopardy, which was excellent. The mystery aspect came in with the categories not being identified and being something else that was guessable.

The Friday night official program started with Entry Points by T McAy and Trick, which involved identifying four-letter words from words in their dictionary entries. This was pretty clever and there were lots of aha moments along the way. Then came Consonant Conundrum by Bluff. This involved guessing words in given categories and choosing them in a way to avoid being blocked by using the most common consonants. The concept was reasonably good, but the execution failed for me because the pacing was uneven and confusing. Finally, there was On the Rack by Hot, which involved seven members of each large team becoming human Scrabble tiles and spelling out words suggested by the rest of the team. This was pretty funny as people scrambled to rearrange themselves on stage. However, the scoring depended only on the number of words spelled and not their lengths, which might have added another level of challenge.

After hours, I played Bluff’s Trios, which is a trivia game. Elf, Adam, and I made a pretty good team, though we blew it in the final round. Then I played part of Game Showdown by Zair. This had rounds based on different game shows (e.g. Password). Unfortunately, there were several technical glitches and we were only able to play a couple of rounds. Somewhere in there, it was after 2 a.m. and I decided that I had been up late enough, though I still managed to stay up later once I got to my room.

Saturday always starts with the business meeting. The main question is always where the con is going to be in two years. (We already know the next year – 2018 will be Milwaukee.) The result is that 2019 will be in Boulder, Colorado. I know Boulder well, having spent more time there than any other place I’ve not actually lived in. This gives me incentive to write a walk-around puzzle for it. In fact, I know what the final answer will be based on. I also know of an interesting connection between Milwaukee and Boulder that could provide a puzzle for next year. (I have a well-formed concept, but am not sure how hard it will be to execute.) The other topic that got some discussion was an anti-harassment policy, and I am pleased that the major issue had to do with how much to spend on legal advice. Though I will admit that when I saw the excellence policy distributed this year, my first thought was to wonder exactly what incident had triggered it.

Somewhere in between the business meeting and the afternoon session, I did the third con cryptic (Make Way for Ducklings by Trazom) with Shrdlu. We zoomed through it particularly quickly, by the way, not that it matters. I also played Noam’s Jeopardy, which is always a pleasure. (Come to think of it, that might have been later in the day. Things get blurry.)

As for the official puzzles for the afternoon, those started with Time Test from Willz, which consisted of seven puzzles, some of which I did well at and others of which I completely failed to get in the allotted time. Then came Cartoon Rebuses by Toonhead! I am not a particularly visual thinker and I am pop culture illiterate so had a hard time with this one, though I thought it was done well. In retrospect, I might have done well to team up with somebody else on it. Finally, there was the annual flat-solving competition, edited by Saxifrage. I don’t even bother with this, though I do go up to my room and flip through it to see if there are any I can do easily. There are too many types of flats for me to keep up with, for one thing. I will note that I was able to do more than I expected, including two enigmatic rebuses (rebi?)

I vaguely intended to get back down for the con photo, but instead got in an interminable wait for the elevator. Slow elevators are on my hotel peeve list, but this was particularly ridiculous – nearly 20 minutes (and there were people in the foyer on my floor before I got there).

The big deal of con is, of course, always the Extravaganza. This year was by Navin, Shaggy, Spelvin, and Zebraboy. It turns out that the title Bar Exam referred not to law, but to chocolate bars. The key thing for me is that I like to have a team where everyone is contributing. We had one person who clearly felt that he was not. I would have liked to have seen more of the puzzles and was irritated by another person whose priority was doing things fast. If you want to be that competitive, I think you shouldn’t sign up for a casual team. You might also try listening to other people. (Hint: if you are given a sharpie, there is probably a reason.) I was probably more snappish than I should have been. Perhaps there might be a better way of describing the two categories of teams? Maybe in terms of how much people want to emphasize solo solving versus cooperation? Or maybe I was just too sleep deprived – a state which has been known to induce more than the usual bitchiness.

I didn’t do anything after hours on Saturday night. I could even have gone to bed at a sane hour, but I got into an interesting conversation (NPL has a lot of interesting people) and there went another hour.

As for Sunday, no awards for me this year, which is just as well as I need to be getting rid of things. And no particular travel hassles afterwards, though I flew back into IAD and had the inevitable delays getting home from there.
fauxklore: (Default)
Celebrity Death Watch: Ian Brady was the perpetrator of the Moors murders in England in the early 1960’s. Beatrice Trum Hunter wrote one of the first cookbooks focused on natural foods. Chris Cornell was the lead singer of Soundgarden. Chana Bloch was a poet, an academic (largely at Mills College), and a translator of Hebrew literature. Jean Sammet was a co-designer of COBOL and became the first woman to become president of the Association for Computing Machinery. Dina Merrill was an actress and the daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post and E. F. Hutton. Denis Johnson was a writer, as was Ann Birstein. Jim Bunning was a pitcher, notably for the Tigers and the Phillies, and later became a politician. John Noakes was a presenter on the British children’s show Blue Peter. Frank Deford was the sports commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition. David Lewiston was an ethnomusicologist, whose work focused largely on Asian music (e.g. gamelan recordings), though he also recorded in Morocco and Peru. Elena Verdugo was an actress, best known for playing the nurse on Marcus Welby, M.D., a show which I was sometimes allowed to stay up late to watch. Frances Sliwa was the mother and publicist for Curtis Sliwa and his Guardian Angels. E. L. Woody was a paparazzo, whose antics included helicopters and high speed car chases. Nora Mae Lyng collaborated on and starred in Forbidden Broadway. Jimmy Piersall played for the Red Sox (and, later on, the Mets) but is notable largely for his struggles with bipolar disorder which he wrote about in his memoir. Fear Strikes Out. Peter Sallis voiced Wallace in Wallace and Gromit.

Roger Ailes was the CEO of Fox News until he was forced to resign amid reports of harassing female colleagues. One is not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I’d make an exception for the case of this racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic jerk. Similar sentiments apply to Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, although his evils were more along the lines of murder and drug trafficking.

Roxcy Bolton was a civil rights activist, focused on crimes against women. In addition to organizing a shelter for homeless women in Florida and founding the first rape treatment center in the U.S., she is credited with having persuaded NOAA to change the names of hurricanes to include the names of men. That, of course, destroyed our childhood joke that hurricanes were named after women because they weren’t himmicanes.

Sir Roger Moore was an actor, best known as playing James Bond in several movies, though I think his work in The Saint is better, probably because my preferred Bond is Sean Connery.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was the National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter. His political positions were difficult enough to assess, but I can never forgive him for having a name that is difficult to use in light verse.

Gregg Allman was a pioneer of Southern rock, best known for the band he formed with his brother Duane, who was killed in a motorcycle crash. You might want to eat a peach in his memory.

Carrot Cake: I was asked for the recipe. I vaguely recall pulling it from the recipe box a few months ago to make it. Apparently, I did not put it back in the recipe box. Or, if I did, I badly misfiled it. So it will take a little longer.

The Indie 500: Saturday was the Indie 500, D.C.’s local crossword tournament. There were quite a lot of out-of-towners and a surprising number of first timers.

I usually say that one can blame jet lag for any mental lapses for at least a full week after getting back from overseas. That is my excuse for having had a few errors on Puzzle #1, which should have been a simple one from Angela Olson Halsted. Apparently, I was looking at down clues only, because I had crossings that made no sense at all. And I was also pretty oblivious to the theme. So much for a day of clean solving.

In the case of Puzzle #2 by Paolo Pasco, I was just slowish, though I did solve cleanly. I grasped the theme quickly – and it is the type of theme I am usually good at. But there was a certain amount of fill I found weird and some fairly unsatisfying clues. I attribute that to Paolo being a high school junior. I should also note that he was not present, or he would almost certainly have been the recipient of the ritual pie in the face. By the way, the miniature pies arrived between puzzles 2 and 3 and the chocolate cream pie I ate was quite tasty.

Puzzle #3 was by Tracy Bennett. I solved it cleanly and in decent time. I can’t really say much more than that because, looking at the scan, I have only a vague recollection of what the theme was and it wasn’t really the sort of thing that made a difference in solving. I do remember there was a bonus companion puzzle that got handed out afterwards.

I think the lunch break was next, with another visit to Beefsteak and a lunch of gazpacho.

Then came Puzzle #4 by Erik Agard featuring Allegra Kuney. This had a complex theme, which took me some time to figure out, largely because there was quite a lot going on. I’m not surprised that Erik won the honor of being pied at the end of the day. My time was okay, but I flaked out on looking at one crossing, which coupled with a bit of pop culture ignorance led me to have one error.

I redeemed myself with Puzzle #5 by Neville Fogarty. The theme involved the sort of wordplay I enjoy, making this my favorite of the tournament.

There was a break with a reasonably entertaining trivia game, before the finals. As for the finals, Puzzle #6 was by Andy Kravis and had an interesting twist in that not all the clues were given to the contestants at the beginning. Eric Cockayne won the outside track final and Katie Hamill won the inside track.

My final standing was 64 out of 128, so dead center (i.e. 50th percentile). Comparing to previous years, this is not quite as pathetic as it sounds. At least I improved, even with jet lag in the way:
2017 – 64 / 128 (50th percentile)
2016 – 60 / 117 (49th percentile)
2015 – 61 / 100 (39th percentile)

Washington Folk Festival: The Washington Folk Festival was this past weekend. I pulled out a small bit of my project to learn a story from every country in the world. The five stories I told were:

  1. The Lion Who Could Not Write – Afghanistan
  2. The Man Who Was Used as a Ball – Fiji
  3. How Bill Greenfield’s Wife Taught Him to Tell a Story – United States
  4. Two Foolish People – Mongolia
  5. Hare’s Medicine Bag – Zimbabwe

This was the first time I’d told the last story in public and it wasn’t quite as polished as it should be, but I think it works for the most part. I stayed for Margaret’s set of mermaid stories after I was done, then listened to a little bit of Armenian music. (I’d gone through the crafts exhibit and watched some Morris dancing earlier.)
As far as the story project itself goes, I am looking for an Albanian story I like. The key words in that are the last two. I have looked at several so far, but nothing has really jumped out at me yet.

Please Don’t Analyze This Dream: I was leaving Sidney Harmon Hall (home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company) after watching a musical and then seeing an advertisement for all the musicals they had next season. I was concerned about it being late and missing the last metro train home, but it turned out to be only 8:30 at night. For some reason, I exited a door that did not lead me to F Street – or any other street I recognized. I went into a hotel, thinking I could walk through it to F Street, but the lobby didn’t go anywhere, so I had to exit again. I walked back in the direction I’d come in and went into an unmarked door, which led to what seemed to be a construction site. Again, things did not seem to lead anywhere. There were various scary looking (possibly homeless) people around, but as I walked back towards where I had come in, I saw more parents with children and it looked like the place was supposed to be some sort of construction-themed playground. I went out a door marked as an exit, which put me on a sort of jetty-like construction, next to a river. There were a polar bear and a wolf and maybe some other animal in the river, but everybody just seemed to be ignoring them and sloshing down into the river to leave. I managed to roll up my pants and get into the river further down from the animals, which quickly took me to dry land. I asked a man I saw if the street I was on would go through to the next block and he said, "yes, but it is always on fire because of the Latvians."
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) was this past weekend and I was there to test myself again. Because I had some odds and ends to do at work (including a meeting), I took a 3 o’clock train up, which meant I arrived at the hotel just before things started. There had been an Amtrak incident (their term, not mine – an Acela train clipped a New Jersey Transit train just outside Penn Station in the morning) which made me nervous about delays, but things were pretty much on time. Checking into the hotel was rather slow, however, largely because they gave me an upgraded room. I guess puzzle people don’t travel enough for there to be all too many with my elevated Marriott status. (Which I actually get out of being a United Million Miler, but, hey, I’ll take it.)

Anyway, part of the weekend involved the Second World Palindrome Championship, which didn’t really interest me. My issue is that I care a lot more about elegance and sense than sheer length of palindromes, so tend to dislike those with proper names and odd interjections and the like. It’s sort of like times I went to see a double feature and hated the first movie, but had to sit through it to get to the second one. Palindromes are the Blue Velvet of the puzzle world for me.

Fortunately, the other part of Friday night was more like Something Wild. (And, in case you wondered, that is a real life double feature example from my misspent youth.) There was a competition with two rounds, each of which had you choosing one of three puzzles to do. The first round options were Diagramless, Puns & Anagrams, and Cryptic. It was a tough choice, but I opted for the Puns & Anagrams, thinking that I’d be more likely to get bogged down in the Cryptic. I wasn’t particularly fast, but I did finish it in time. The second round options were Split Decisions, Spiral, or Marching Bands. I chose Marching Bands and, while there were a few clues that took me a while, I got through it reasonably quickly.

After the interminable voting on palindromes, there was a wine and cheese reception, which gave me a chance to chat with a few people I see all too infrequently. They announced prizes for the evening puzzles (one for each of the six possible combinations). And then I went up to my suite and collapsed.

This is as good a time as any to note that I have never really seen the point of getting a suite upgrade when I’m traveling alone. The "junior suite"at the Stamford Marriott is also somewhat oddly designed, as there is no desk area. Nor are there enough electrical outlets. I’d rather have a table than a huge ottoman, personally. It didn’t really matter much for the weekend, but I’d have been annoyed were I staying there on a business trip.

Anyway, Saturday came. I’d made plans to meet a couple of folks for breakfast. Since the hotel didn’t have their lounge open on weekends, they had given me breakfast coupons (free for continental breakfast, but you could upgrade to the full buffet for 5 bucks), so I could treat one person each day.

But, you really want to know about the ACPT, not hear me gloating about hotel status perks. I will refrain from including spoilers here since there are still people solving at home, but I will write some and rot13 them in the comments.

Puzzle 1 was by Bruce Haight, whose name didn’t immediately conjure up anything for me, though it seems he’s had a lot of puzzles published over the past couple of years. It was fairly straightforward, though there was a bit of a trick with one entry. It had the sort of theme that didn’t really matter much to being able to solve the puzzle. But it could have helped with that one tricky entry. (Not that I actually noticed that at the time, since I knew the answers to the relevant clues.) I solved this cleanly in 7 minutes, which is decent for normal people but the top solvers can finish in 3-4 minutes.

Puzzle 2 was by Patrick Berry, who is one of my favorite constructors. He is consistently clever. This puzzle had a nice little wordplay theme, which I finished cleanly in 13 minutes.

Puzzle 3 was by Brendan Emmett Quigley, who is a very evil man. The actual theme of the puzzle wasn’t especially hard, if you have done enough tricky puzzles. The fill, however – and, specifically, parts of the theme answers - included some very unusual words. I relied a lot on the crossings and did, indeed, manage to solve it cleanly, but it took me 21 minutes.

During the lunch break, I walked over to the mall food court, which isn’t exactly exciting, but is convenient. I also bought some puzzle books. Because, you never know, there might be some horrible disaster that stops puzzles from being published and I only have enough on hand to last me a couple of years.

Puzzle 4 was by Julie Berube, a constructor who I was entirely unfamiliar with. The theme was straightforward enough, though of a kind I don’t find especially interesting. There were only a couple of squares which gave me any hesitation since either of two letters could be legitimate, but, in both cases, the crossings resolved any potential ambiguity. I’m not sure of my time on this, since it didn’t show up on the scan. I think (based on the score) that it took me 8 minutes. At any rate, I was still error free, which was very exciting.

But the dreaded Puzzle 5 was lurking. I had failed at this one, always the hardest one of the tournament, in my previous attempts at the ACPT. I was a bit relieved to see it was by Mike Shenk, whose puzzles I do (and enjoy) frequently. Then I looked at the puzzle and skipped a couple of heartbeats. But, wait, here was a clue I knew. And there was another. And, what? Could it be? A theme answer I knew that led me to what Mike was up to. Well, only partially, and it got me into trouble on the northeast corner. But the fill was falling. And, then, I realized that Mike had more up his sleeve. Yes! I figured out what was going on and, with furious erasing and replacing, I solved puzzle 5! Let me say that again. I solved puzzle 5! Admittedly, it took me 28 minutes. But I solved puzzle 5! It was one of those "now I can die happy" moments, akin to the Red Sox 2004 World Series Championship for me. Was it possible that I would actually have an entirely error-free ACPT? (I should also note that I thought this was an incredibly clever puzzle and it was my favorite of the competition.)

Puzzle 6 was by Lynn Lempel. In some ways, you didn’t really have to figure out the theme to get this one, though the wordplay was fun and did make a few of the answers go faster. I finished it cleanly in 13 minutes. At the end of the day on Saturday, I was in 130th place, which is quite a lot better than I’d done in the past.

Saturday night started with dinner. I ended up with a few other people at a South Indian vegetarian place a few blocks from the hotel. The food was good and reasonably priced. It’s worth remembering for the future.

The evening program started with more palindromes, about which the less said the better. I was happier with the trivia contest, even though there was more pop culture than is optimal for me. (On the other hand, I knew two of the music clues that other people on my team did not. And my encyclopedic knowledge of musicals proved useful.) There was also the Merl Reagle MEmoRiaL Award, which went to Manny Nosowsky and was accompanied by a lovely mini-documentary about him and his puzzles and his support to other constructors and so on.

While I had fun on Saturday night, I was up later than I should have been and then had trouble sleeping. Why, yes, I do relate to "The Princess and the Pea." Anyway, the morning came, as did breakfast. And so to puzzle 7.

Puzzle 7 is the last of the ones everybody does and is a Sunday sized one. This year’s was constructed by Joel Fagliano. As far as themes go, it wasn’t particularly difficult. I was, however, rather slow, partly because I probably should have asked for the large-size clues. It’s just as likely that it was simply lack of stamina, however. I was also being rather deliberate because I wanted to end up with completely clean solves. The bottom line is that it took me 20 minutes, which meant I slipped in the standings and finished in 141st place.

I had arranged an earlier train than I’d have liked to for reasons that aren’t worth getting into here. (In short, for somebody who travels so much, I can be kind of flaky on scheduling.) So I slipped out in the middle of the talent show and completely missed the finals. I heard that there were some interesting things in them – e.g. the B finalists being given the A clues by mistake and a critical error by Tyler Hinman in the A finals. Next time I need to schedule better.

Bottom line is that I was reasonably happy with how I did this year. I was one of only 65 contestants who had an error-free outing. And I continued to climb the ranks. I think a lot of that improvement is that, while I haven’t been trying to solve puzzles particularly quickly, I have made an effort to do more hard puzzles. For the record, here is my performance over all of the times I’ve competed:


2009 – 265 / 654 (55th percentile)
2012 – 241 / 594 (59th percentile)
2014 – 202 / 580 (65th percentile)
2016 – 171 / 576 (70th percentile)
2017 – 141 / 619 (77th percentile)

If I can keep up this pace, I could make it to B division next year!
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Celebrity Death Watch: Bobby Breen was a child star of the late 1930’s and was one of the people depicted on the album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Erwin Hahn was a physicist who was best known for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance. Jose Fernandez played baseball for the Miami Marlins, as well as having an inspirational personal story of his defection from Cuba. Arnold Palmer played golf and bears some responsibility for the particularly sickening non-alcoholic drink combining sweet iced tea and lemondade. Buckwheat Zydeco was a major figure in the Louisiana music scene. If you can listen to his music without dancing, you may be a zombie.

Non-celebrity Death Watch:Dunn Miller was a puzzle person. Her NPL nom was Loquacious. There’s an interesting obituary of her by Jon Carroll. I particularly recommend the last few paragraphs.

Naomi Feingold was one of my mother’s best friends. I thought they had been in school together, but her obituary says she was 4 years younger than Mom. She and her husband were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary by going on a safari in South Africa. Since she apparently died in Johannesburg, I hope they were on their way home and she got to see at least some of the grandeur of that beautiful country before her death.

Baseball: First, the Washington Nationals have clinched the National League East.

The Red Sox are 5 and a half games up on Toronto and their magic number is 2. They have been way hot lately, winning 11 straight games. I went to Thursday night’s game in Baltimore, which was very exciting. Orioles starter Chris Tillmnan only lasted 1 2/3 innings, giving up three runs. The O’s did tie it in the third, with a three-run homer by Trey Mancini, who just came up from the minors. But the Sox got a run in the fifth and Hanley Ramirez hit a homer in the 7th, so all was well.

By the way, I took the Marc train and stayed over. Because I was planning things last minute and there was some convention going on, the only nearby hotel I could get was the Holiday Inn Express at the Stadiums, which is marginally within walking distance. They do have a local shuttle, but it runs only hourly.

On the plus side, it is next to the Horseshoe Casino. I was hyper after the game, so not ready to go to sleep and that provided a way to kill an hour or so. I played a slot machine with a Big Bang Theory theme and won a little over a hundred bucks.

Used Bookstore Run: I did a used bookstore run this weekend. McKay’s took 27 of the 33 books I had brought in. I did use trade credit to come home with 14 new ones, including a Patrick Berry variety puzzle book. I was going to try bringing the rest to Reston Used Books, but there was some international festival going on by there and the normal parking was closed off. It was hardly worth it with so few, anyway. So I will hold on to those until a future run.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
This past Saturday was a Saturday in August, so it must have been time for Lollapuzzoola. As I’ve said before, this is my favorite puzzle event of the year, largely because the puzzles are just that extra bit more creative. This year’s were particularly good, with a wide mix of themes that were interesting but still fair.

I should note that they expanded the space being used, essentially by opening up an alcove for use by the pairs division. It’s clear that the popularity of the event has grown and they had a wait list for registration. (I had registered more or less when things opened to do so, so it wasn’t an issue for me.) I believe everyone cleared the wait list, but it’s a good reminder to sign up early in the future.

While we waited for things to start, there was a warmup puzzle by Brian Cimet. It had two identical grids, but the clues were mixed together (i.e. two clues for 1A, etc.) so you had to sort out what went in what grid. It wasn’t especially hard, but did take some thinking. Even more thinking was required to work on a cryptic that Ucaimhu had brought along. Note that I said "work on," not "solve." I expect to finish it (and other of his puzzles) somewhere around my 80th birthday.

Anyway, the real event started soon enough. Puzzle #1 was by Mike Nothnagel. There was a bit of pop culture trivia buried in the theme, which gave me a moment’s panic, but it turned out that the crossings were helpful enough to make that not be a problem. Overall, it was a good start to the competition. I solved it cleanly in a reasonable amount of time. (Reasonable for me. The top competitors finish in about the time that I can pick up a pencil.)

Puzzle #2 was by Patrick Blindauer. We were told up front that there was something quirky with how one was to enter the answers, so I was a bit scared. It turned out that the trick wasn’t that bad and it was definitely the sort of thing that one would never see in other puzzle venues. Again, I solved cleanly, though I was a bit slower than I should have been. By the way, there was a cover sheet and they recommended using it for origami after turning in one’s solved puzzle. Alas, it was not quite stiff enough to make a hopping frog with. (I have very limited origami skills and they are oriented towards things you can do with a business card.)

Puzzle #3 by Doug Peterson was a bit tricky. I knew I was doing fine with the answers, but I had to double check just how I’d entered them. That made me slow and, even worse, apparently I didn’t double check quite well enough as I had an error. Someday I will get through an entire tournament cleanly, but this was not going to be that day.

Then came the lunch break. It was beastly hot out, so I wasn’t inclined to do lots of walking around. I went with [livejournal.com profile] bugsybanana and her mother a couple of blocks to Hale and Hearty. They do have some cold soups, but I opted for a salad. Which was good, but actually bigger than I wanted, since I had had a largish breakfast. (There is a diner by Hunter College that I like, more for the quality of eavesdropping on the regulars than for their food per se. It’s a very New York place.)

Puzzle #4 is the scary one of Lollapuzzoola, the equivalent of Puzzle #5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The good news this year was that it was by Evan Birnholz. Since he writes the puzzle for the Washington Post Sunday magazine section, I’m comfortable with his style. In this case, I got really lucky, because I happened to start in the northeast corner and saw what was going on right away. That made for a clean solve in a reasonably decent time. (Again, by my standards. How is it that Erik Agard’s paper doesn’t catch on fire from the speed of his writing?)

The final puzzle (well, for those of us who weren’t going to be anywhere near the finals) was by Francis Heaney. There was a gimmick involving having to put certain words at the bottom of the page. But, again, I didn’t really have trouble figuring out what was happening. I got slightly hung up on a little of the fill, which made my time a little on the slow side, but I did get a clean solve.

As for the finals, the clues for the Express division (i.e. the speedsters) appeared near impossible and the clues for the Local division weren’t actually all that much easier.

By the way, there were also a couple of group games to fill in some bits of time. Those were generally fun, though I didn’t think my table had great teamwork. And there was a metapuzzle, which my table didn’t really get around to doing much of.

All in all, it was a fun day of puzzles. I ended up tied for 94th out of 230 contestants, which put me at the 59.1st percentile. That’s a nice improvement over past years:
2012 – 42.6
2013 – 44.6
2014 – 57.6
2015 – 51.0
2016 – 59.1

Now, if I can just outlive all the top solvers ...

SiLiCon

Jul. 15th, 2016 10:54 am
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
This year’s National Puzzlers’ League convention was in Salt Lake City. I flew in on Wednesday evening. The trip there was made slightly complicated by a metro snafu, but I avoided the delays by taking a pricy taxi to Dulles instead. I have often claimed that I am sure that my death will be at the hands of a third world taxi driver and I now believe that, for these purposes, northern Virginia qualifies as the third world. But, anyway, I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flights to DEN and on to SLC. On arrival, I got a shuttle to the hotel, along with a couple of other NPLers (and a couple of people who had come in for some other purpose, though I can’t imagine what).

The hotel was the Marriott City Center. As usual, Marriott ignored my profile (or, more likely, wiped out my preferences for the umpty-umpth time), which means I ended up in a room that was too close to the con hospitality suite. So I had another 45 minute delay while I switched rooms to one where I had some hope of sleeping. Seeing as how it was after 1 a.m. at that point, I didn’t try doing anything but sleeping.

There aren’t scheduled activities on Thursday, so I started out with breakfast at the Little America Coffee Shop (which was not quite as good as I remembered it being from my previous trip to Salt Lake City) and a longish walk over to Gilgal Sculpture Garden, which is as surreal as their website had led me to believe. Let’s just say that a Sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith is not something one sees every day. Look at the Tour section on their website for pictures of all the sculptures, with explanations. I’d say this is a must see for fans of visionary art and a must avoid for anybody with good taste. In other words, I loved it. (And it was a great excuse for a long walk on a day with extremely pleasant weather. I should probably note that I set a new record on the step counter on my iphone, though admittedly I don’t normally carry the phone around with me on weekends, which is when I tend to go out for real walks.)

From there, I walked back downtown and made my way to the Family History Library to do some research. I’ll write more about that in my next genealogy update, since there is no reason for puzzle folk to hear about my quest to find out about a mysterious cousin known as Sam Katz, the dwarf Communist printer.

The official program began Thursday night, with a game called Puzzlemasters All by Mr. E. This had everyone emceeing the sort of quizzes that Willz does on NPR on Sundays, moving from table to table while doing so. It was reasonably fun, though I’m not sure it was really effective as a mixer in that there wasn’t really time to get to know your fellow players. Next came Blankety Blanks by Murdoch. This had trivia questions, with the twist that each question had some words, each starting with the same letter, blanked out. The most fun part was that we were challenged to write more questions of the same sort. Finally came, Cryptic Mad Libs by Ucaoimhu and $8.90. This had three parts, with the first two involving answering questions and the final part using those to fill in the blanks in cryptic clues. It was clear we were being led down certain paths, but the result was very funny. Then, the over-the-weekend cryptics got handed out and the real event (i.e. the after-hours games) began. I know I played Noam’s Jeopardy, which was fun as always. At some point (but it might have actually been before the official program), I played Spelvin’s game "What?" which involved guessing answers to questions while having only a few words of the question. And late in the night, I ran my game, "Security – It’s Not Jeopardy." Which was, frankly, a fiasco. I will write about that separately, because there are some useful lessons out of that, and I did manage to do some editing and make it not quite so horrible for the second group of guinea pigs. I went to bed somewhere around 3 a.m.

Friday dawned a bit too early, as I had to be available for a work-related call. Fortunately, it didn’t happen, as I’m not sure I would have been coherent enough to answer technical questions. I was walking towards Temple Square figuring I’d get breakfast on the way, when I ran into a couple of other NPLers so ate with them. Then we did part of the Temple Square walk-around puzzle. They wanted to do more in depth sightseeing and I wanted to go back to the Family History Library, so we separated.

I resurfaced from my genealogical haze in time to go back to the hotel and work on pair solving one of the cryptics with Venn, who is fairly new to these puzzles. Then came dinner and the official program for the evening. That started with Dictionary Triathlon by T. McAy. This involved being given a word and a rule and trying to guess the next word in the dictionary that would follow the given rule. It was done in pairs and was reasonably entertaining. Then came Dilemma by Tinhorn in which one had to answer either/or trivia questions and characterize them by how likely you were to be correct. This was substantially harder than I would have expected. Or maybe I was just really tired, as evidenced by my misunderstanding the very first instruction in the next game, Shrediting by Rubrick. That didn’t really matter since the point of it was mangling a given set of poetry (well, song lyrics – in the case of my table, the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues"). This is the sort of thing that is the most fun if you don’t overthink it.

As for Friday’s after-hours games, I know I played Navin’s Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, a sort of pub quiz team game, the most amusing part of which was his take on figure skating which had one person per team (fortunately, not me) trying to draw answers to trivia questions with a "skate" consisting of a marker velcroed to his foot. I also know I played a Hamilton-inspired Jeopardy by Cazique and Saxifrage at some point, but can’t remember whether it was Friday night or Saturday night or maybe Saturday afternoon. I also played "Doubles Jeopardy" by Tortoise in one of those time slots, which was also quite amusing. My memory failings should not be considered a reflection on the quality of the games. And I know that I ran my game again on Friday night, with many of the questions rewritten, and somewhat more successful results than the first time around. Oh, there was also a trivia game by Vroo that he wrote partly in response to his feedback on my game, though the only thing it had in common was a randomization aspect. Somewhere along the way, it became some time after 3 a.m. As I have said many times before, there is something seriously wrong with the rotation of the earth.

I did make it out of bed on Saturday morning for breakfast and the business meeting. We already knew that next year’s con is in Boston, a city that I am always happy to have excuses to go to. There were two bids for the following year and the resulting vote ended up with us deciding on Milwaukee in 2018. I’m very happy about that because the other option was Southern California, which is a place I spend a lot of time in already. I’ve been to Milwaukee a couple of times and I like it (and, of course, I like the friends I have there.) In addition, I think moving around between regions is a good thing for national organizations to do and we haven’t had enough cons in the middle of the country. The other item that came up in the business meeting had to do with whether to spend money on hiring someone to scan in old issues of The Enigma and, given how much volunteer work so many people have done, I am pleased that idea got pretty much no support.

But I was here for the games and puzzles and there were more of those on Saturday afternoon. Time Test by Willz consisted of several short word puzzles, most of which I did fine at. But there were a couple I couldn’t complete, . Then came Urban Renewal by Manx. This involved combining words and changing letters to form the names of cities and is exactly the sort of clever puzzle I particularly like. I was, alas, rather slow at it and had to finish later, but it was still fun. Finally, there was the annual flat competition. There are way too many kinds of flats nowadays and I only really understand a few types of them. So I thought it was a good opportunity for a nap instead. Alas, sleep eluded me, but I did rest for a bit before the convention photo. We were gathered uncomfortably on a set of steps outside the hotel. The steps were narrowish and it was hot out and the whole thing took way too long, so I got kind of grumpy.

One of the highlights of con is always the extravaganza and this year was no exception. Colossus dressed in a bee costume (which she apparently already had from some previous event) and the puzzle descriptions were filled with bee-related puns, though the obvious "National Buzz-lers League" didn’t show up. There was a good mix of puzzles and I think each of the four members of the team I was on did pretty much an equal amount of work. We did finish, but not especially quickly.

As for after-hours games, I am always happy to play the latest version of "Makeshift Jeopardy" by Arcs, which has a high level of silliness. I was also eager to play b-side’s "Mormon Jeopardy," and enjoyed it very much, not least because I did well against some tough competition. Somehow, I had hit my second wind, which let me get in quickly on lots of the clues. Finally, I always enjoy Dart’s games and was happy to play another edition of "Only Connect," although I wasn’t really much of an asset to my team.

I had an early flight in the morning, so gave up around 2:30 in the morning and tried to get a few hours of sleep. I think I got more sleep on the flights home, however, and pretty much collapsed once I did get home. I figure I’ll be caught up on sleep somewhere around next June.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Saturday was our local (Washington, D.C.) puzzle tournament. It was kind of a pain getting to GWU for it, since Metro had started "SafeTrack" (for which I have much ruder names), meaning trains were scheduled to run every 18-20 minutes. Which would be fine if they were running more often than every 45 minutes. Because, in addition to the scheduled single-tracking between East Falls Church and Ballston, they were also single-tracking between Clarendon and Foggy Bottom due to flooding in the Rosslyn tunnel. I had left myself plenty of time and was still able to go over to Bourbon Coffee on L Street to get some decent coffee before things started.

The first puzzle, by Peter Broda and Lena Webb, was straightforward enough. The theme wasn’t especially interesting and, frankly, one could probably solve it without ever figuring out what the theme was. Still, I solved cleanly and felt I was off to a good start.

Puzzle 2, by Andy Kravis and Neville Fogarty, was somewhat more my speed, with a theme that invoked puns in the style of Merl Reagle. It was my favorite of the day and, again, a clean solve. I found Puzzle 3, by Sam Trabuco, a lot less enjoyable, largely because I thought several of the answers were a stretch. I did, however, solve it cleanly. Things were going quite well and, in fact, after the first three puzzles, I was 6th on the Outside Track (out of 77). Admittedly, I was probably behind almost everyone on the Inside Track (i.e. the people who can solve the easy puzzles in about the time it takes me to pick up my pencil), but I was still pleased. On another pleasant note, somewhere in there (I think it was between the second and third puzzles), there were miniature pies.

Last year, I had been unable to find the Jose Andres veggie fast food place, Beefsteak, but now that I knew where it was, it made a good lunch destination for a few of us. You can build your own combo, but for a first time visit, it made sense to try one of their predesigned bowls. The kimchi-wa is described as containing rice, corn, carrot, cabbage, edamame, bok choy, garlic yogurt sauce and is topped with scallions, sesame seeds, corn nuts, kimchi, and soy ginger dressing. This was very tasty and proved to be quite a lot of food. I will definitely eat here again.

Things had been going swimmingly, but then came Puzzle 4, by Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan. I figured out the theme fairly quickly, so that wasn’t a problem. The issue I had was a lot of difficult fill. Maybe other people know who the President of Nigeria is offhand, but it isn't the sort of thing that comes trippingly to my fingertips. In fact, I did get that answer, more or less letter by letter. But I got hung up in the upper left corner, largely because I got too attached to a particular wrong answer. So I ended up with 4 wrong squares and, to show how big an impact one puzzle can have, dropped from 6th to 34th on the Outside Track.

Puzzle 5 was a team effort by all the constructors and, fortunately, I found it more straightforward. I solved it cleanly, which brought me up to 21st on the Outside Track and 60th overall. That put me at the 49th percentile overall, which is mediocre, but it is better than last year when I’d been 61st out of 100 competitors, i.e. at the 29th percentile.

Overall, I had a good time, even though none of the puzzles really blew me away. At the end of the day, I stopped in at Whole Foods to buy a couple of things and then waited the better part of a millennium (okay, 40 or so minutes) for a train. They were still single-tracking through the tunnel, though Metro had apparently decided during the day that actually informing people of this was too much effort. Not that it mattered all that much, but I was exhausted when I got home.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Last weekend saw me traveling up to Stamford, CT for my 4th attempt at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT). The travel was slightly tedious as, inevitably, the train up was delayed. And I am not sure it was physically possible for it to move any slower from New York through New Rochelle. In the end, it was probably 40 minutes late, which is about what one expects of Amtrak.

Anyway, I checked into the hotel in plenty of time for the evening activity, which was an Escape Room designed by Eric Berlin. Really, it was mostly a set of crossword and variety puzzles, done in teams of two or three. The major trick was that you had to go back to some of the characters you had already interacted with in order to get a second item from them. My team escaped successfully and I had fun in the process.

That was followed by a wine and cheese reception. That’s mostly an opportunity to say hello to various people who I see infrequently. It was late enough, however, that I suspect any conversations I had were at least somewhat incoherent.

But it’s the tournament itself that I need to write about. First, a brief note on types of puzzle themes. There are, of course, themeless puzzles, but the ACPT ones tend not to be. There are some puzzles where the theme just involves certain letters, words, phrases, or synonyms being repeated, often inside longer words or phrases. There are others where there is some type of word play (e.g. adding or deleting a letter or anagramming part of a phrase) to create a pun in the answer. There are rebuses, where a symbol or word is filled in for a single box of the grid. And there are puzzles that rely on entering words in some complex way, rather than straight across from left to right and/or up and down. (I am probably missing some categories of themes.) I tend to find the word play type of theme to be the most fun and those are often the easiest for me.

Puzzle 1, by Kristian House, was sort of in between the first two types and was straightforward enough. I still don’t know how the top competitors can finish so quickly as I don’t think I could fill in random letters into a grid as fast as they write. I had a brief moment of fear over Puzzle 2 when I heard it was by Patrick Blindauer (and when I remembered that I had made errors on Puzzle 2 every other time I competed). But it was easy enough (in the first theme category) and I solved it cleanly. Notably, I had run across the answer to 8D in the clues for another puzzle just a few days earlier, so I didn’t get hung up on the random vowel choice that might have otherwise caused me to go astray. I was happy to hear Puzzle 3 was by Mike Shenk, because I probably do more puzzles by him than by anyone else, thanks to the Wall Street Journal puzzle page not being blocked at work. It fell into the wordplay theme style and I breezed through it. In fact, I was briefly in 104th place at the end of it.

I used the lunch break mostly to take a walk around the nearby mall, where I was saddened to discover that the Barnes and Noble there was substandard. That means that they did not have useful guidebooks for any of my upcoming international travel. (I am only allowed to buy new books as part of purchases that include guidebooks, so this meant I didn’t spend money. This is not a personal rule that I am normally so good at adhering to, but early in the month I try to do better.)

Anyway, back at the tournament, Puzzle 4 was by Zhouqin Burnikel. I don’t think my rundown of themes really had a category for this one, but it was the sort where some of the answers are sort of definitions for their clues. I solved it cleanly, but was a bit slow and sank to 133rd place. But I was not to remain at those lofty heights, as the dreaded Puzzle 5 lurked. And, indeed, Patrick Berry came up with a difficult puzzle (of my last theme category). At least this time I figured out what was going on, but I did so just a bit too late to finish, with several squares left blank in the middle of the right side. I’m not sure quite how far I sank in the standings, since I didn’t look again until after Puzzle 6 (a straightforward one, with minor wordplay, by Joel Fagliano) had been scored and I was 172nd at that point.

Saturday night started with going out to dinner with a group of Losers, i.e.people who are aficionados of the Washington Post Style Invitational. That was reasonably entertaining. The official evening activities started with a game based on the TV show Idiot Test. This was fairly amusing, though it took a bit long to get to the four semifinalists. Then came a rundown on the performance of Dr. Fill (a computer program that is good at normal puzzles, but had trouble with Puzzle 5.) That went on far longer than it needed to. It was followed by a moving tribute to the late Merl Reagle.

Puzzle 7 on Sunday was by Lynn Lempel and another one where the theme involved word play. I did well enough at it, though wasn’t so fast as to make up for my Puzzle 5 failure. My final ranking was 171st.

I will spare you commentary on the Talent Show, since much of the humor relies on inside jokes. The finals were exciting and I was very pleased that Howard Barkin pulled out an upset victory over defending 6-time champion Dan Feyer. Why so pleased? Well, aside from Howard being super nice, my years of Red Sox fandom always have me rooting for the underdog.

Comparing with my previous attempts, I was happy with that result:

2009 – 265 / 654 (55th percentile)
2012 – 241 / 594 (59th percentile)
2014 – 202 / 580 (65th percentile)
2016 – 171 / 576 (70th percentile)

But I still want to finish Puzzle 5 some day.

By the way, my travel home could have been horrible, since an Amtrak train had partially derailed outside of Philadelphia. But my train was actually the first southbound one to go through that area and was only about a half hour late. The metro ride home, however, did feature a unique screw-up as some idiot lit some newspapers on fire in the first car. They were going to pull the train out of service, but figured out they could just isolate that car. After putting the fire out, that is.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
You may recall that I complained last year about how male-dominated the after hour games at the NPL con were. In the interest of lighting a single candle, I’ve been working on developing a trivia game. I could just do a Jeopardy game, of course, but I thought it would be fun to devise a slightly different game mechanism. I want things to be less dependent on buzzer-pushing reflexes and also to have a little element of chance. (Recall that I am the person who loves backgammon on the grounds that it is a game of skill when I win and a game of luck when I lose.)

Here is what I’ve figured out. I’d love some feedback on whether this looks like something you might like to play. And, of course, I invite ideas for tweaks, though I feel free to reject them.

This is a 6 player game. At the beginning of the game, a die will be tossed to determine which player will start. Assuming the players are in a curved linear seating array (i.e. more or less around a table, facing me as the moderator) the play will then move to the next person on the previous player’s right.

There will be a total of 42 trivia questions which will be, for convenience, on index cards. The questions will cover a wide range of categories. That deck of index cards will be shuffled before the game starts. The cards will then be gone through in order.

The player whose turn it is will roll a die to determine how many points his or her question is worth. On hearing the question, the player has the opportunity to either answer or pass. Incorrect answers lose points, but passing does not. Either a pass or an incorrect answer gives the next player the opportunity to answer the question. The point value of the question does not change as a result. If no player answers correctly, the game will move to the next card. Note that getting a card as a result of an incorrect answer or passing does not count as one’s turn.

Each player will also have one safety token. This can be traded in for the opportunity to answer a question with no penalty for being incorrect. Note that each player can only use his or her token once during the game.

At the end, the player with the most points wins.

So, what say you?
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
This past weekend included a Saturday in August, so it was time for Lollapuzzoola 8. This is my favorite crossword tournament, because the puzzles are just that much crazier. I will keep things spoiler free here, since there are still folks solving at home.

I can write about the gimmick of the first puzzle (by Patrick Blindauer), since it is right there in the instructions. Namely, there was a sound effect to signal "stop," requiring everyone to put down their pencils until the next sound effect let us "go." The puzzle itself was not particularly difficult, but the stop and go aspect slowed things down a bit.

Puzzle 2, by Anna Schechtman, was my favorite of the day. The theme was tricky enough to be interesting, without being impossibly difficult. While I enjoyed puzzle 3 (by Mike Nothnagel), I thought it was possible for somebody to solve it without completely grasping one aspect of the theme. I’ll note that I managed to solve the first 3 puzzles cleanly, which is always a big part of my goal.

I went out to lunch with a group of folks. Or, more precisely, we got take-out (sushi, in my case) from a nearby store and came back to the room to eat it. Lunch was followed by an entertaining, punny group game by Francis Heaney.

And then came the reckoning. Puzzle 4 at Lollapuzzoola is the equivalent of Puzzle 5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It’s the puzzle that separates those who are big fish in their small ponds from the leviathans of the puzzle world. Joon Pahk’s puzzle was subtle and clever and proved that I am, comparatively, a minnow. (In addition to a challenging theme, I completely failed to make a dent in the middle left part of the grid. And that was with the use of 2 google tickets to get answers.)

Fortunately, there is puzzle 5 to redeem the day. I found Doug Peterson’s contribution pretty straightforward. But its theme was the sort of thing you might well find in a conventional puzzle venue, so it was less exciting.

While we waited for results, there was another punny group game. There was also a meta-puzzle suite, which I would say was more of a mini-extravaganza. My table didn’t get hung up on the puzzles, but had difficulty with the idea that we needed a team name.

The finals featured a puzzle by Kevin Der. The local division clues (i.e. for humans) were challenging enough. The express division clues (i.e. for the top solvers) were impossible. In fact, for a while it looked like none of the 3 finalists would finish, but Frances Heaney pulled it out at the last minute. Trip Payne was oh so close, however, and it was really painful to watch him fill in the last couple of letters, erase them, fill them in again, erase them – and run out of time. I will admit that it took me damn long after seeing the correct answer to figure out what the clue meant. There was a recent list circulating of the trickiest crossword clues ever and I think 35A in this puzzle would almost certainly qualify.

I needed to rush off at that point, so didn’t stay for the awards. If you really care, I finished 95th out of 194 contestants. That puts me at the 51.0th percentile. For comparison, I was at the 42.6th percentile in 2012 and 44.6th percentile in 2013. So last year, when I finished at the 57.6th percentile, was an anomaly (albeit a positive one), and I can think that I’ve been improving, be it ever so slowly.

The reason I needed to rush was to get to a flyertalk wine dinner at Virage down in the East Village. I’m not really much of a wine person, but this sounded like fun and it never hurts to learn a bit. The basic idea was 11 people, 15 bottles of wine, and a lot of food. It started with bruschetta accompanied by what I think was the house rose, which was definitely the least memorable wine of the evening. We moved on through various appetizers (a chopped salad, tuna ceviche, a delicious and unusual combination of figs with goat cheese and olives, fried calamari, fried artichokes, lamb meatballs), accompanied by three different bubblies. My favorite was the NV Krug Champagne Brut Grand Cruvee, but the 1996 Pierre Paillard Champagne Brut Millesime Grand Cru (of which we had a magnum) and the 2004 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut Rose Vintage Reserve were also eminently drinkable. Somewhere around the calamari, we moved on to the white wines, with a 2013 Schollum Project La Severita di Bruto Farina sauvignon blanc and a 2013 Grand Boulay Sancerre La Cote. The latter was my contribution, though it was from our host’s cellar, and I was quite pleased with it. There was a viognier (2007 Domaine Yves Culleron Condrieu Les Challets) and two chardonnays (2013 Fisher Vineyards Chardonnay Mountain Estate and 2013 Fisher Vineyards Chardonnay Whitney’s Vineyard) to take us through the lobster bolognese pasta course. The chardonnays were decidedly oaky and really not my thing, as it feels to me like drinking trees.

The reds came out with the main course, for which I chose the lamb kebab, served with rice, salad, and hummus. This was also excellent - and I didn’t hear anybody complaining about their choices. We had one syrah (2008 Bedrock Wine Co. Syrah Lauerbach Hill), which I liked quite a lot. And then there were four cabernets. The 2008 Lewelling Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon was the last of them, though still decent. I liked the 2008 EMH Cabernet Sauvignon Black Cat better. The final two – 2008 Black Sears Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Estate and 2008 Outpost Cabernet Sauvignon True Vineyard – were quite similar, though I preferred the Outpost a bit.

The dessert choice was an easy one. I can’t resist fresh berries and that was one of the options. They were served with cream. And, of course, wine. In this case NV Pride Mountain Vineyards Mistelle de Viognier. That was fine, though I doubt that I will ever prefer dessert wines to liqueurs.

There was also, of course, plenty of lively conversation – primarily about wine and travel. So it was a lovely evening, overall, and well worth the minor exhaustion the next day. Thanks so much to Erez for his organizing the whole thing.

Recouvery

Jul. 15th, 2015 01:52 pm
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
This year’s National Puzzlers’ League convention was held in Vancouver, British Columbia last week and, since it was the second con there, called Recouvery. For those unfamiliar with NPL, people identify themselves there by a nom, which I will use for consistency in lieu of people's actual names.

Getting to Vancouver was slightly more challenging than it needed to be, due to the meltdown at Continental dba United. I was able to make it work by calling to get on an earlier flight to LAX than the one I was booked on and rushing off to the metro to get a cab to IAD. That flight was delayed two hours itself, but still left me with plenty of time to get over to terminal 2, get my Air Canada boarding pass (not doable on-line or via United, for reasons that were never clear), eat dinner, and relax in the lounge. The AC flight was also delayed, allegedly due to weather in the Bay Area, which does not actually make sense for a flight coming in from Vancouver to LAX, but not much I could do about it. We got to Vancouver shortly before midnight, so I opted for a cab to the hotel and pretty much collapsed when I got there.

I did not get up on Thursday morning in time to do the inaugural NPL 5K walk/run, so I had to satisfy my need for movement by walking a lot through Vancouver, primarily following Davie Street. I had one minor mission to fulfill – checking out Omnitsky’s Kosher Deli, which is somewhat south of downtown but not too difficult to get to. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be if I had a sense of direction and hadn’t started out walking 5 blocks in the wrong direction from the skytrain station. I am, frankly, not sure it was worth the effort. The tongue sandwich and kasha knish were both good, but the pickles tasted like bottled Vlasic. And the mustard on the table was Heinz yellow. (They did have deli mustard for the sandwich, but a less than generous amount of it.) In addition, the service was mediocre. Had it been conveniently downtown, I might have had a more positive reaction, but I didn’t think it was worth going out of the way for.

I went back to downtown and decided to try doing the Robson Square walk-around puzzle. There was an outside part that was, essentially, a logic puzzle. In the interest of time, I skipped that momentarily to team up with a few other people to attempt the puzzles inside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Key word is attempt, as we were not successful in completing those. In one case, we can blame a part of an exhibit being covered up, but the other two just left us feeling dumb. I should also note that it was a bad idea to start this at 3:30 in the afternoon, as the museum closed at 5 and we didn’t really have enough time to linger and enjoy the exhibits. When we left, I did go back out and do the outside puzzle, but that wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the frustration.

The official program started Thursday evening. There was a mixer puzzle called Fitting Words, which required matching pairs of pictures to form words. The tricky part was, of course, that many of the pictures could represent more than one word. Is that a pier or a dock? You really don’t know until you try fitting things together. That was followed by Hot Plates, a quick version of the license plate game, i.e. making words which contain a given set of three letters in order (but not necessarily consecutively). Since the letters were chosen at random, it was always possible that some of the letter combinations didn’t have any solutions. There was a second part with a longer time to fill in those you missed the first time around. This was pretty entertaining, even though I didn’t do especially well at it. For the record, the best word you can make with the letters from my license plate is "jeroboam." The last game for the evening, Bringo, involved filling up a bingo card with words that met a number of different rules, then playing a bingo game (in which the numbers of the rules were called out) with them. My team tried too hard to come up with good words and, hence, ran out of time to optimize our card. But, of course, it’s really all luck because the rules were called out randomly.

There was an over-the-weekend creative competition handed out, as well as 2 cryptics for pairs solving. I won’t say anything too specific about the cryptics, since there may be people still trying to work them, but Trick’s (which I solved with Spiel) was jawdroppingly brilliant. It wasn’t super-difficult per se, but more of a "how did he ever think of that?" moment when we realized what we had to do to finish it.

After the official program, I joined a team to play Spiel’s mini-extravaganza, which was reasonably entertaining. Then I played Qaqaq’s Jeopardy game, which had, interesting categories, a nice mix of questions and a particularly satisfying Final Jeopardy. I may be biased because I won that game. I don’t remember exactly when I did which unofficial games, but I think the other one I did that night was Dart’s game, Faster, which had a very clever mechanism, which I think works best if nobody playing knows just what is going to happen. (Or, I suppose, if everybody does.)

There had been discussion on Facebook about doing an escape room, so I was signed up to play a room called Dreamscape at Smartypantz in Gastown on Friday morning. I didn’t think the puzzles to solve were particularly interesting, though it may be just the ones I worked on. In one case, we badly overthought what we had to do. But we did finish (just barely) on time, so I guess it was a success.

After that, I was off to a minor league baseball game. I believe the ballpark is officially Scotia Bank Field, but everyone calls it by its historic name of Nat Bailey Field. The Vancouver Canadians are a short-season A-league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. They were playing the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a San Francisco Giants affiliate. The ballpark was pretty average, while the quality of play was notably below average. For example, the starting pitcher lasted only 1 and a 1/3 innings. I was not paying attention to his ERA, but it reminded me of the time I saw a Red Sox relief pitcher’s ERA climb to something over 100 before he was taken out. And there were a couple of players with batting averages around 0.015. The Volcanoes ended up winning 8-2. On the plus side, the ballpark sells local beer.

But I was in Vancouver for puzzles and games. It was either just before or just after Friday night dinner that I played Capital R’s Jeopardy game, which started out with the categories "who," "what", "where," "when," "why" and "how" and moved on to things like "whence," "whither," "wherefore," "aintcha," and 2 others that have slipped my mind. It was a bit too pop culture heavy for me to do well at, but was still fun to play. What I am sure was after dinner was a sing along. One of my pet theories is that much of what is wrong with our culture is the refusal of large numbers of people to sing along on such occasions, so I feel obliged to sing, despite my vocal deficiencies. There were just a few songs, with some NPL specific lyrics thrown in, so the whole thing wasn’t too painful. I also thought it would be a good place for the hidden puzzle to be hidden. But, alas, no.

The official games for that evening started with Green Energy by Shrdlu. This involved listing words in various categories, with the goal of reusing letters. The game was fun, but the complexity of the scoring made it take longer than I’d have preferred. My favorite official game of the weekend was Dart’s I Don’t Wanna Be Right. The premise was, essentially, to choose the most popular wrong answer for a set of trivia questions. The catch was that you lost points if you chose the correct answer. The other catch was the usual one of group dynamics but, realistically, we would have only gotten a few more points if the rest of the team had just listened to me. The official program for the evening ended with Lieutenant Nodumbo and the Case of the Mangled Manuscript by Rubrick, Slik, et alia. This involved each person at the table writing in a sentence (or fragment) into a story (which had parts already supplied). It’s the sort of thing I rarely enjoy because: a) I am a control freak, b) I have a very particular sense of humor, c) I get impatient with people who want to do this sort of thing well, instead of quickly, and d) did I happen to mention that I’m a control freak? The results were acted out by a group of people, with the catch that there was an overlay to mangle the stories even further. The whole thing did turn out to be fun, largely because of the (deliberately) exaggerated acting.

The unofficial events that evening started with a tribute to Maso, involving charades and seeing the pictures people made for his memorial. It was a fine way to honor his memory and I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. After that, Spiel and I worked on Trick’s cryptic, which I already mentioned completely wowed me. Finally, I played Puzzling in the Dark, a game run by WXYZ. This involved a group of blindfolded players, who handled objects on a table (plus some additional ones in a box) to figure something out. It was fun to do something collaborative, but the layout of the space had some impact on the group dynamics. For example, there was really only one person who could handle the objects in the box easily. Overall, I didn’t feel like I was particularly useful. So I thought the game was a good idea and reasonably entertaining to play, but the execution could use some tweaking.

Saturday morning’s chief feature is always the business meeting. The presentation for Salt Lake City next year was excellent, with a word mine game passed around the table while a video with the official state song was played. As for the 2017 con, Boston had a strong bid and no real competition. There was, however, an excessively long conversation about costs creeping up and what less expensive cities there should be bids for, and a handful of places talked about for the future.

The Saturday afternoon competitions started with Time Test by Willz. This involved a series of wordplay puzzles, some of them far easier than others. As usual with this sort of thing, I could have used more time, like, say, a month for the back burners of my brain to churn over a few of them. Voweled Expressions by Bluff called for filling in consonants into grids to complete familiar sayings. I got most, but not all of these. Finally, there was the flat solving contest, with this year’s theme based on concrete poetry. I opted for a nap instead of attempting this.

I did make it back down for the con photo. I think I played Noam’s Jeopardy! game between that and dinner. His version is reasonably straightforward, unlike some of the more twisted ones out there. That didn’t stop me from a couple of stupid errors, for which I can blame mental exhaustion. Fun, anyway.


The big deal is always the Saturday night extravaganza, with this year’s version by Dozen and QED. The initial packet had 15 puzzles and the solutions to those netted you a meta to solve. We did, as a group, look through all of the puzzles, before people sorted out what they wanted to work on. That worked reasonably well, in general, with 2-4 people working on each. Instead of going strictly by time this year, every team that finished within 3 hours got entered into a random drawing for prizes, so my team actually ended up winning. The time constraint was driven by when gelato was showing up, by the way.

One of the essentials of any NPL con for me is what I think of Jeffpardy, i.e. the Jeopardy! game by [livejournal.com profile] jeffurrynpl. This year was no exception, with mock-Canadian touches like a category called "Befoure and Aftre." Not that I am necessarily good at that sort of thing, but it amuses me. I seem to think we had a very competitive match, overall, which is always a nice touch.

The other game that was an essential for me was Makeshift Jeopardy 2 by Arcs. I was really tired, I knew I’d be taking a redeye Sunday night, and I still stayed up to play. It isn’t quite Jeopardy, though it starts out looking like it. All you really need to know is that there was lots of laughter coming from that corner of the room. His twist on Name That Tune was particularly amusing. It was worth the sleep deprivation.

Sunday just meant breakfast, prizes, and socializing, including going out to lunch at the suitably named Legendary Noodles. Canadian airport security is inevitably slow and inefficient, but I had plenty of time. The hop down to Seattle was quick, but I had a longish layover there. Fortunately, there are decent food options. And, as I was on an international ticket, I had lounge access. Redeyes remain just about my least favorite thing about flying, particularly when (as in this case) there are poorly controlled children. I know parents who think redeyes are great because the children will sleep, but my experience is that the parents sleep and just don’t hear the children screaming.

Anyway, I got back to IAD on time, took the bus and metro home, showered and changed clothes, and headed straight into the office. So I was pretty much a zombie all day Monday and I probably owe an apology to somebody for something I said about a sensor. It was worth the sleep deprivation.

By the way, I have been thinking about something since I got back. Both the official program and the unofficial program are completely dominated by games and puzzles written by men. I realize this is a subject for broader discussion and there has been lots of traffic on various mailing lists on topics like whether or not crossword editors discriminate against women. I don’t think that the NPL con activities are a matter of discrimination, but of self-selection. I mention this because I have an idea for a trivia game. In fact, I have two ideas – one for a game mechanism, one for a name. I’m not convinced those two things go together, however. But the bottom line is I am, at least tentatively, planning to bring something to Salt Lake City next year.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Celebrity Death Watch: Mervin Field founded a polling company. Elizabeth Peet McIntosh was a spy, both with OSS and its successor, the CIA, and wrote a couple of books about women spies. Ornette Coleman was a major jazz composer and saxophonist. Christopher Lee was an actor, noted particularly for horror movies. It wasn’t his fault that the film adaptation of Dracula so completely mangles the book. Ron Moody was also an actor, best known for playing Faigin in the movie version of Oliver!. Jack King was the voice of the Apollo space missions.

Puzzle People Deaths: I met Leslie Billig only in passing at a couple of crossword tournaments, but it is clear from what other people have said that she was well-liked and a significant loss to the tribe of puzzlers. The loss that has hit me harder is that of Thomas Gazzola, known within the NPL as Maso. He was a brilliant man, the creator of numerous puzzles, including a late-night game that I still think of as Doubles Jeopardy, even though he later changed that to It Takes Two. I was always astonished (and excessively proud of myself) when I could beat him at any sort of trivia. His death is particularly tragic, as he was the victim of a drunk driver, who struck him while he was jogging near his home. This year’s con will not be the same without him.

Leading Jewish Minds: Tuesday night was the first Washington area edition of the Leading Jewish Minds at MIT series, sponsored by MIT Hillel. Traffic going to McLean was a mess, but I made it in plenty of the time to the home of our gracious hosts. I hadn’t expected to know anybody (other than the Hillel staff) but, in fact, the attendees included someone I met a while back via a mutual friend and another person whose cousin was a good friend some 30+ years ago. The event was advertised as having "light kosher dairy refreshments." Ignoring the kashrut question, at a non-Jewish event, that would mean wine and cheese and maybe crudites. At a Jewish event, light refreshments means a groaning board, including noodle kugel, spanakopita, lox, salads, etc.

The speaker was Dr. Gerald D. Cohen '88, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Macroeconomic Analysis at the US Department of the Treasury, who spoke about the outlook for the US economy. I thought the most interesting part of his talk had to do with metrics, i.e. how we actually measure how the economy is doing.

Food Pornography – Pizza Edition: There was a flyertalk dinner at Fireworks Pizza in the Courthouse area on Wednesday night. The place was quite noisy, which is an issue, but the food was well worth it. The beer list offered too many choices, so I went with a cocktail, instead – The Calm Before the Storm, which was their version of a Dark and Stormy. It was quite good, with strong ginger flavor. (One of the reasons I rarely order these is that most American ginger beer is unimpressive.) As for food, the tartufo pizza had lots of tasty mushrooms (shitake, cremini, maitake) and an excellent thin crust. It is probably the best pizza I’ve had in the area and I would certainly try some of their other offerings.

The evening also solved a bit of a mystery. A couple of weeks ago I ran into somebody at a bookstore, who clearly knew me as he called me by name. He looked vaguely familiar, and I was pretty sure there was a work connection, but I could not place him at all. Well, he was at that dinner and it turns out that he works with our software team. But he is based in Seattle, so it’s not like he’s around all the time. We had never actually worked together but had had a conversation re: flyertalk once on the way into the building (since I had a backpack with a flyertalk tag on it).

Everybody Knows: I thought that everybody knows that there are stalactites underneath the Lincoln Memorial, formed by the limestone of the carving dripping down into the cavernous understructure. I have, in fact, been there and seen them, though it is some years ago. Nobody in my office knew about this. Alas, it appears that they’ve closed off public access, so they will remain unconvinced.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Saturday was the inaugural Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. This was right in D.C., so was a pretty low investment for me. So how did it go?

At other tournaments I’ve been to, Puzzle 1 is reasonably easy. While there was a simple warm-up puzzle while we were waiting for things to start, Erik Agard’s first contest puzzle was fairly tough. The theme was reasonably amusing, but there were a couple of items of pop culture I wrestled with. Unfortunately, I guessed incorrectly in a couple of cases. So there went my hopes for a day of clean solves.

Puzzle 2, by Peter Broda, was a bit easier for me, as it was the type of theme I particularly enjoy. In fact, it was my favorite of the day, despite a question about scoring. I believe I solved it cleanly, but they marked me wrong on one square. It is, of course, possible, that I had a brain / hand disconnect. I didn’t bother with asking for a correction, since it would have made only a one place difference in my overall (mediocre) standing.

Finn Vigelund won a constructor’s contest and his entry became Puzzle 3. It wasn’t particularly difficult, though it took me a while. I was a little disappointed in the theme, which was not quite as complex as I was expecting from the blurb. Unfortunately, I made a dumb (but, apparently, common) error in one square.

It was time for a lunch break and [livejournal.com profile] bugsybanana and I tried to find what I remembered as a new Jose Andres restaurant with a name that had something with Tomato in it. It turns out that the name is actually Beefsteak and we walked right past it on the other side of the street, without my noticing. So we ended up at Roti, instead. Which is fine. But that might be an indication of how my day was going.

Back at the tournament, Puzzle 4 was a huge relief. Andy Kravis gave us a quick and easy one, perfect for getting back into the swing of things. At least I managed to solve something cleanly. Though I will admit that the theme was not especially interesting. (There was nothing wrong with it – I just like themes that are trickier.)

I think that was the point at which the pie bites (little tarts) were brought out in the vestibule. The coconut cream was okay, though I’ve had better. The lemon berry, however, was superb. There were numerous other options, should neither of those be your pie of choice.

And then came Neville Fogarty’s Puzzle 5. Did I say I like puzzles with tricky themes? I did figure out what was going on, but I had to keep reminding myself of the trick several times. That is, each time I’d move to a different part of the puzzle, I’d have to tell myself, "oh, yeah, that’s what I have to do." In the end, 40 minutes was just not enough for me to finish the whole thing.

While we waited for scoring to be completed, there was a bit of trivia I found it hard to focus on. There was also one of the highlights of the day. One randomly chosen contestant (in this case, Joe Cabrera) got to throw a pie in the face of one of the constructors. Peter Broda took the vengeance well.

[livejournal.com profile] bugsybanana made it to the Outside Track finals and I cheered her on, but, in the end, she came in second, losing to Joshua Himmelbach, a rookie. Andrew Miller (another rookie) had actually finished the puzzle first, but left two squares blank, pushing him to third place. I should note that I attempted the puzzle using the Inside Track clues – and, after 10 or so minutes, had managed to fill in exactly one answer. The Outside Track clues were a lot more doable for this mere human. As for the Inside Track finals, Joon Pahk won handily, followed by Amy Reynaldo and Eric Maddy.

Overall, I finished 61st, out of 100 competitors – a decidedly mediocre showing. I will attribute that to young constructors, whose trivia / pop culture framework doesn’t synch up well with mine. Or to the cold and allergy issues I’ve been having. Or, of course, I can always blame the New York Yankees, because they are and always will be The Source of All Evil in the Universe. Despite which, it was fun, and I figure I will compete again next year, assuming: a) they do it again next year and b) I’m actually home.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Somehow, I had missed David Malki's creation of the idea of Chanukah duck in this Wondermark cartoon. The idea is that the duck quacks a puzzle for the entertainment of children each day of Chanukah.

Apparently, not long after, Yakov Hadash perfected the concept with this song, complete with puzzle.

I now have two new ambitions:

1) Create 8 quackable puzzles

2) Have someone write a klezmer song re: one of my more ridiculous ideas

Why, yes, in case you hadn't noticed, I am easily amused.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Lollapuzzoola 7: As I mentioned briefly in my last entry, I went up to New York last weekend. The major excuse was Lollapuzzoola 7, a particularly fun crossword tournament. What makes it so much fun? Let’s just say that the puzzles have rather unconventional themes. I won’t go into a lot of detail on the puzzles since there is a solve at home division and people are almost certainly still plugging away on them.

The first puzzle, by Cathy Allis, was a nice warm-up, with a fairly straightforward theme. It’s the type of thing you could solve without really paying any attention to the theme. Puzzle #2, by Mike Nothnagel, was considerably more challenging. It was gimmicky, but the gimmick was a fun one and this was my favorite puzzle of the day. I will mention, however, that a rookie sitting at the table I was at, left after this puzzle, complaining that he was out of his league and not having fun. I’m not sure if there’s anything that could have made him feel better. #3 was by Tony Orbach and I was slightly intimidated when I saw there was a second sheet with it. I was even more intimidated when I saw it was a sheet of pictures. Fortunately, it turned out that you didn’t really need to be super up on pop culture or able to recognize the pictures to solve it. It was also very amusing.

I used the lunch break to enjoy the fine weather and walk around some (since walking from 29th and Sixth to 80th and Lex wasn’t quite enough for me, apparently.) When I came back, we had an anagram game to play, which I found difficult because I couldn’t always write down the words to anagram quickly and accurately enough. And also because I suck at pop culture.

That was followed by a silly team activity. Each table had to come up with a name for their baseball team and an associated cheer / chant. My table was the Gimme Specifics and our chant (to be used when the announcer said there had been a base hit) was “Single? Double? Triple? What?” My favorite team name, by the way, was the Bad News Gnus.

Then it was time for Puzzle #4. This is the killer, the equivalent of the notorious Puzzle 5 at the ACPT. When there is 45 minutes for a 15 x 15 puzzle, you know there is something evil going on. Let’s just say that I finished it (with the use of google tickets, but some remaining errors) and occupied myself dreaming up tortures to inflict on Patrick Blindauer as a result. The final puzzle (or, I should say, final for those of us who were nowhere in the running for the win) was by Doug Peterson and was far simpler, with a more normal (though not very exciting) theme.

The top 3 in each division competed publicly in the finals, with Jon Delfin being the big winner for the Express division. Before the finals, there was a meta puzzle event, which kept us amused and occupied while the judges were figuring out who would be competing. At the end, there were prizes, followed by pizza and socializing. All in all, it was a great time.

Oh, by the way, I solved everything except Puzzle 4 cleanly and ended up finishing 65th out of 160 people. I consider that eminently respectable. More significantly, it’s a lot better than I’ve done the previous two years.

Just Jim Dale: Looking at theatre listings, I didn’t really see much that was exciting that I haven’t already seen. Based on reviews (and a couple of personal recommendations), I settled on seeing Just Jim Dale. I associated Dale primarily with his starring role in the Broadway musical Barnum, but he had a long and varied theatrical and musical career, primarily in his native England.

The show was the typical mix of songs, Dale chatting about his life, and a few dramatic excerpts. I could have lived without the lengthy Noel Coward monologue and I thought the piece on quoting Shakespeare was a bit long. The excerpt from Joe Egg was more successful. I was glad that the musical numbers included "The Lambeth Walk" (from Me and My Girl), which competed with "Georgy Girl" (for which Dale wrote the lyrics) in the "infect Miriam with an earworm" competition. I also enjoyed "Museum Song" from Barnum, which is that relative rarity - a Broadway patter song. The show also included Dale’s description of recording the Harry Potter audiobooks. And a lot of corny old jokes. Overall, I’d say it was a reasonably good way to spend an evening in New York.

Brief travel note: I stayed at the Doubletree in Chelsea, which offered a good price, because it is allegedly new. I am almost positive, however, that it is not at all new, but merely rebranded (possibly from Hampton Inn) and that I’d stayed there before. Be that as it may, I need to remember not to stay there again, given the complete and utter lack of soundproofing. I understand that New York is the city that doesn’t sleep, but I don’t need to hear motorcycles revving from 17 floors up. And why exactly do people think it is okay to shout at one another in the hallway of hotels at 2:23 a.m.? (Yes, I looked at the clock when they woke me up from the light doze I’d managed.)
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Yeah, this took a while, but I had a couple of cross-country trips more or less right after con. I already wrote about the Maine sightseeing I did beforehand, so let's pick up the story in Bar Harbor.

I had intended to stop at Sabbathday Lake on my way from Bar Harbor to Portland, but it was pouring rain so decided to skip that excursion. That let me sleep a little bit later before driving back to PWM and returning the rental car. I got to the Westin Harborview Hotel in plenty of time to check in and unpack before the Taste of Maine picnic, which opened the 175th convention of the National Puzzlers’ League.

The picnic was supposed to be outdoors, but the weather had moved things to a warehouse instead. There was a fun mixer game, in which one had to fill out a bingo card with people who met various criteria. I was moderately useful, having been to at least one National Park. (I have, in fact, been to 11.) There were also Maine foods to try. Moxie is the local soft drink and I thought it was pretty good. But I am also the only person in North America who likes chinotto. The whoopie pies and blueberries were more generally acceptable. After the picnic, I had dinner at Brian Boru’s pub with a few other NPL’ers. I know there were some unofficial games going on, but I was fairly exhausted and opted for an early night in a vain attempt to preload my sleep quotient.

After getting breakfast at Marcy’s Diner on Thursday morning (where the atmosphere was at least as appealing as the basic greasy spoon food), I joined a group to do a walk-around puzzle at the International Cryptozoology Museum. The puzzle had me reading more of the signage than I might have otherwise. To be frank, the museum was somewhat disappointing, with little that was new to me. And the gift shop was a huge let-down, primarily because there was nothing there which would have made a suitable retirement gift for my former boss. I spent the rest of the day browsing in a few bookstores and talking myself out of schlepping a few temptations home. I also made my first gelato stop, at Gorgeous Gelato. This is less popular on various lists than Gelato Fiasco across the street, but I started with it because it is owned by actual Italians. Their panna cotta flavor was excellent, but the chocolate orange had little orange flavor. (Somewhere in there, I ate some real food, but didn’t make a note of it, just in case anybody is worrying.)

But I should be writing about puzzles. The program started Thursday night with Meet Your Match by T McAy. This involved listing your favorite answer for various categories. You were trying to find the least popular answer for your own table’s question and the most popular for other tables’ questions. In all too many cases, I could barely guess any answer that fit the category. Next up was Ten Clued Very Much by Qaqaq, in which one had to guess 10 words based on a series of numbered clues, with the goal being to use the fewest clues possible. I got 7 of the 10 words before time ran out, which was respectable, but nowhere close to winning. The final official event was Par Fours by Tortoise, which involved filling in letters to complete words. I was teamed with Ember and somehow we managed to do extremely well at this. We got the best score on the first round and came close on the second. It figures that I’d be able to get a prize in a year that my flight home was too early for me to go to the awards.

I always look forward to the unofficial program and one of the highlights is always the Jeopardy game that Jeffurry puts on. His questions have more pop culture than really suits me, but they’re always amusing. Another person who always has good games is Dart and his new drawing game, Palimpsest, was fun to be a guinea pig for. By the way, I’d promised myself that I would not stay up past 2 a.m. and I made it to bed at 1:57.

I dragged myself out of bed on Friday to do a volksmarch through Portland. The walk had, alas, been rerouted since last year, so did not qualify for one of the baseball special events program, but did qualify for murals and family owned bakeries. The first part was along the Back Cove and Casco Bay, which was pleasant enough except for the part past the sewage treatment plant. The Old Port area was more pleasant, albeit more crowded. It also offered a chance to stop at Holy Donut (which I would probably appreciate more if I liked donuts better). I used the proximity as an excuse for a stop at Gelato Fiasco. They had more flavors than Gorgeous Gelato, with a decent blood orange and very tasty strawberry balsamic, but the texture was less smooth. Sorry, Portland, but Italy is not going to be losing any sleep.

I took a too short nap before dinner and the evening’s puzzles and games. That started with On Beyond Initials by Mr. E, which involved coming up with phrases that used given letters. Not only could the letters not be the initials, but the phrases had to be divided among various categories – people, places, titles, groups, and other. This was surprisingly difficult, but my team did manage to get a respectable score. Next up was Record Turnover by Witz and Fraz. This involved a trivia game in which you had to identify both what the current answer is and what the correct answer had been in 1980. In some cases, just the fact that it had changed was sufficient to figure out what the answers were. The final official event of the evening was Snake Oil by Squonk and Cecil. One player at each table took on some role (e.g. a fisherman, a reporter, or a TV anchorman) and other people had to put together two of the cards they had to come up with a product to sell to that person. This was a lot of fun and I could see playing it as a party game with some of my more creative friends. However, it was challenging moving around the crowded room to find the right person to try to pitch something to.

Then it was time for more after hours games. I played an Old Songs Jeopardy devised by Mr. E. Unfortunately, his idea of old songs is 1950’s rock, while mine is Gershwin, Porter and Berlin. So I didn’t do very well at it. After that I played a round of Dart’s Connect 4, at which I was moderately useless. I finished off the night (and stayed up until after 2) with a World Cup themed pub quiz by Navin. The questions were fun, but we had some teamwork issues that left me rather grumpy.

Saturday started with breakfast and the business meeting. We all knew to look forward to Vancouver next year, but where will con be in 2016? Alas, that remained undetermined. I do have to say that I really appreciate that there is some effort to get people to see something of the con locale, e.g. via walking around puzzles. Not that this has any influence whatsoever, but the largest U.S. cities I have never been to are El Paso, Memphis, Tucson and Omaha. (I am deliberately ignoring the existence of Fresno. In fact, I would refuse to believe in the existence of Fresno were it not for Frank Loesser and I may have just infected myself with an earworm.)

There was time after lunch for Noam to run his Jeopardy game. He always has a good mix of categories and I am proud to say that I won this one handily. I needed to not feel dumb at that point, so I am especially thankful. The afternoon program started with Camouflage by Willz, which involved identifying words hidden within longer words. I did well at this one, finishing it in just about 20 minutes, out of the 25 allotted. At least 6 of those minutes were for just one answer. Then came Opposable Sums by Manx. This was a clever puzzle involving pairs of anagrammed antonyms, with an extra letter for each pair. I got about 16 of the 25 answers before time ran out, and enjoyed finishing the puzzle when I got home. I was way too tired to really attempt the annual flat-solving competition, though I recognize the hard work that Saxifrage put in on Starting Lines.

The Saturday night extravaganza is always a highlight of the NPL con and this year was no exception. Rubrick, Sidhe, Trazon and Wombat put together an interesting assortment, with various additional constructors. The first group of puzzles was deceptively easy, but the rest (by the other constructors) were challenging without being impossible. I particularly enjoyed a puzzle that involved word play with names of Broadway musicals, but didn’t make a note of who wrote it. The key thing for me about the extravaganza is having a team in which everybody feels they are contributing and I think we succeeded in that.

I contemplated an earlyish night, but Arcs was running a game that I’d heard was entertaining, so played that instead. It started out as a Jeopardy game, but several clues were missing and you had to figure out what was going on. That was followed by a series of other classic game shows, with a different twist to each one. It’s nearly impossible to explain – and was very amusing. Since I had a morning flight home (which proved to be entirely routine and trauma free), that was the end of con for me. All in all, I had a great time and am looking forward to next year.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this past weekend in Brooklyn. Surprisingly, I did not have a conflict with the date, so I was able to compete for the third time. I’ll keep this write-up free of spoilers, given that there are still people solving at home.

I took the train up on Friday, arriving just about as the Friday evening activities were starting. There were ten ringmasters with different types of puzzles and participants could choose which four they wanted to do. I started with Digital Trivia, which quickly made me feel dumb. You had to estimate various numbers. The only one I could actually say I knew was the rotational speed of the earth at the equator. For many, I had no idea at all, so I took the approach of just writing the same number (specifically 300, for reasons I can’t really explain) for those. That was not actually a successful approach, so I don’t recommend it. I moved on the cryptic crossword, but didn’t come close to finishing it in the 15 minutes allotted. Since I felt the need to do something I would feel more competent at, I moved next to the spiral puzzle. That was a "so close but so far" experience, since I could not figure out two (overlapping) words and complete it. Finally, I did a puzzle that involved filling in consonants to answer a number of clues. Again, it was a good puzzle, but I’d have needed significantly more time. Fortunately, the wine and cheese reception part didn’t make me feel quite so dumb. And it is, of course, good to catch up with people I see infrequently and meet some others.

The real action started on Saturday at 11. That’s a late enough start that I had time for a diner breakfast and walk around Brooklyn Heights. Puzzle #1 was by Kelly Clark. It was straightforward and the theme made no real difference to my ability to solve it. The theme also made no difference to Puzzle #2 by Patrick Blindauer. In fact, I didn’t even notice the theme on that one. There was, alas, one crossing where I was just unsure enough of the spelling of a name and just convinced enough that something was not an actual world to get snookered into guessing an incorrect vowel, costing me a clean solve. It was a minor relief that a lot of other people made the same mistake. Fortunately, I redeemed myself with a clean solve on Puzzle #3. That was by Merl Reagle and had the sort of punnish theme that I consider characteristic of his puzzles. Since I do his puzzle in the Sunday magazine section of the Washington Pos every weekt, I am used to his style, but I imagine it could be particularly difficult if you weren’t.

I’d eaten a large enough breakfast that all I wanted for lunch was some yogurt. I attempted to refresh my mind with a nice walk. That probably made no difference to Puzzle #4, a reasonably easy one by MaryEllen Uthlaut, which I solved decently quickly and (I believe – the scan is missing) cleanly. Then, alas, came the dreaded Puzzle #5. There was a bit of a story to go with it, as Will had accidentally exposed the original puzzle while being interviewed, leading to a last minute substitute by the dreaded Brendan Emmett Quigley. Just once before I die, I’d like to solve a complete Puzzle #5. This was not to be the year. I did figure out the trick, but I got bogged down in the fill in the upper right corner. More annoyingly, I was so focused on trying to break into that corner that I didn’t notice a few squares I had left blank in the middle left, which I could have gone back and filled in at that point. Still, it isn’t as if all that many people did finish it. Puzzle #6 made me feel less dumb. In fact, I pretty much zoomed through it.

I felt lukewarm towards the Saturday night program, so decided theatre going was a better option. There were a few things I was interested in and I decided on the one that was geographically closest. That was a production of Candiede by Theater 2020. The show was at St. Charles Borromeo Church, a short walk from the hotel. They used the pared down 1973 version, which has some limitations (e.g. lacking the only song I know of that contains the word "spirochete," as well as missing at least one major character and an important detail about the sheep of El Dorado. Or maybe I am just the only person on the planet who thinks the phrase "100 red pack sheep" is hysterically funny.). There were also some interesting decisions about how to utilize the space, some of which made me a bit uncomfortable since I am not really used to actors climbing over a pew where I’m seated. The puzzle world will note that Lorinne Lampert did a fine job as the Old Lady. I also want to note the performance of Ellie Bensinger as Cunegonde, who has a fabulous voice and did an impressive job with the challenging "Glitter and Be Gay." Anyway, it was an entertaining evening and worth skipping out on the official program for.

Sunday morning began bright and early – a little too bright and early due to Daylight Savings Time – with Puzzle #7. This was a cleverly themed one by David J. Kahn. I thought I had solved it cleanly, but the scan indicates that I somehow managed not to notice a square I had left blank. Aaargh! I don’t mind when I honestly don’t know something, but carelessness like that frustrates me. It meant that I ended up finishing 202 out of 580. However, to be fair, that is better than my previous attempts:

2009 – 265 / 654 (55th percentile)
2012 – 241 / 594 (59th percentile)
2014 – 202 / 580 (65th percentile)

If I keep improving at this rate, I might reach the B division by 2024. (I will also note that, looking back at my past write-ups, I have made an error on Puzzle #2 each time. So maybe I should lower my goal from finishing Puzzle #5 to solving that one cleanly.)


All in all, it was a fun weekend and I recommend the experience to anyone who either thinks they are good at crossword puzzles or needs some general humbling. Next year is March 27-29 in Stamford, Connecticut. That probably limits my opportunities for a theatre excursion and definitely limits my ability to spend money at Sahadi (a very large Middle Eastern grocery store on Atlantic Avenue). But it’s just a couple of more stops away on Amtrak. (The real issue regarding whether or not I can make it is, of course, various storytelling obligations.)
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
I think I've figured out how to do these, since I've been using the same format for a few years.

Behind a cut due to length )
fauxklore: (travel)
Almost finishing the catch-up on what I’ve been busy with, I went up to New York last weekend. I had booked the trains early enough to get a good price on the Acela, which is helpful in that it got me in early enough to spend some time at Macy’s. I need lots of things, but they didn’t have exactly what I was searching for. (If anyone knows of a good brick and mortar source of skorts, let me know.) I did, however, succeed in restocking my supply of Jockey for Her (which was on sale). I also filled another New York need with a tongue sandwich at the 2nd Avenue Deli. (It’s really the pickles and the “health salad,” i.e. vinegary cole slaw, that are only in New York things.)

Lollapuzzola 5 )

After the puzzles, there was pizza, fulfilling another New York need. Then I walked back downtown. Yes, there is the subway or the bus, but the weather was nice out and I like to walk. I also feel obliged to revisit certain buildings on every trip to New York, so I paid my respects to Patience and Fortitude (the library lions) and the Chrysler Building, a.k.a. the most beautiful skyscraper on the planet. I also got some ice cream from the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. (I got the Bea Arthur which has vanilla soft serve ice cream, dulce de leche, and nilla wafers.) And I solved a mystery.

See, a couple of years ago I went on the Brooklyn Reality Tour (a popular flyertalk event) and the pickup spot was on 43rd Street. Walking over to it, I noticed a building with interesting bas reliefs of the months of the years around its arched doorway. Google failed me and it turns out that I had missed a critical point about the building. Apparently I have to look at a building four or five times to notice that it goes through to the next block. Sure enough, the same bas reliefs are repeated on 42nd Street and using that address let me identify it as the Salmon Tower. It’s really quite a nice entryway and I highly recommend it to people wandering around midtown Manhattan. (You don’t even have to go out of the way as it is right across from Bryant Park. I will not tell you how many years it took me to make the connection to William Cullen Bryant. Who I still confuse with William Jennings Bryan.)

Old Jews Telling Jokes )

Sunday: Brunch and a Giant Invisible Rabbit )
fauxklore: (Default)
First, I have one celebrity death to mention. About all I know about Maeve Binchy is that she was Irish and wrote novels. Maybe I will read one of them someday, after I get through the backlog of other things to read. Somewhere around 2073, perhaps?

Second, I really don’t mind if somebody uses my chair at work when I am out of the office. But I do mind if they change the seat height and other ergonomic settings. If you are poaching on my space, you can be uncomfortable. (And, yes, I am pretty sure I know who the guilty party is.)

Third, I have spent the past 3 hours on a telecon (with another 3 or so hours to go). So far, they have reached the startling conclusion that more capable systems cost more.

What I really wanted to write about, however, is Orecon, the 173rd convention of the the National Puzzlers’ League. This was in Portland, Oregon a couple of weeks ago.

I flew in on the Tuesday night before con started so I could satisfy my obsession with state capitals. The flight was delayed and, of course, United managed to do that about 20-30 minutes at a time, along with providing inaccurate information. For example, they claimed the incoming plane was in the air at least half an hour before it had actually taken off. (Knowing how to use flightaware is handy.) And they made claims about compensation they’d give, then gave us a runaround between the gate and customer service. I can deal with delays if they are honest about them. (I did manage to get compensation using an inside channel after the fact, but the old United handled this sort of thing much better than the current Continentalized staff.)

Anyway, I had no problems with picking up my rental car and getting to my hotel. The drive down to Salem to do the capital volksmarch was easy enough. The walking route followed a number of small waterways, went over to the river front carousel and crossed a railroad bridge before winding through the State Capitol complex. Willamette University, and Deepwood Mansion. Overall, it was a pleasant route and I felt it gave me a good tour of the city.

I got caught in very heavy traffic going back to Portland. Coupled with a bit of a search for a gas station near the rental car place, I ended up getting back later than I’d intended. I still made it to the con picnic while there was a little food (but no diet soda) left. There were also donuts from Voodoo Donuts, though going to their actual store is more entertaining. (Then again, I am not really much of a donut person.) . I spent much of the rest of Wednesday evening playing a dungeon-themed labyrinth extravaganza that Marcus Asparagus had put together and which was lots of fun, even when I felt totally baffled. Alpenhorn Hero, anyone?

I spent part of the day Thursday doing a walk-around puzzle, which required going to several light rail stations. I also had time for a brief browse in Powell’s Books before heading over to meet up with my friend, Leora, who I hadn’t seen in about 25 years. We walked around the impressive rose gardens for a couple of hours before having dinner at a Thai restaurant. It was great catching up with her and I hope it won’t be so long until the next time we get together.

Thursday night was the start of official con activities. [livejournal.com profile] hahathor had us do intros by groups, to the tunes of various songs. We had one person who likes to write song parodies and did all the work on our Brady Bunch theme song parody, while the rest of us whined about not wanting to sing. That was followed by Brainstormers, which required groups to solve somewhat twisted trivia questions. I am happy to say that I was not completely useless to my team.

The official activities that evening ended with the weekend cryptic for pairs solving being handed out. Dandr and I set right to work on Elfman’s and zipped through it pretty efficiently, taking maybe a half hour overall. I always enjoy good teamwork. The unofficial activities continued with playing a pub trivia quiz (which proves that I know nothing about cars) and the annual Jeopardy game put together by [livejournal.com profile] jeffurrynpl who (as usual) managed an especially twisted “before and after” category.
I needed some exercise, so spent Friday doing another volksmarch. This one started in NW Portland and covered the Pearl District, the South Park Blocks, the waterfront, and so on. After doing that, I went back over to Powell’s, where I was proud of myself for spending under a hundred bucks.

Friday evening featured more puzzles and games. My favorite of those was Uncertainty Principle, because it had a lot of the sort of trivia I am reasonably good at. A question asking what country the airport with the code CDG serves is, for example, right up my alley. As for the unofficial activities, I played a couple of other Jeopardy games and another trivia game that I was, er, far more challenged by.

The major outcome of Saturday morning’s business meeting was a reminder that next year’s con will be in Austin, TX and a vote for Portland, Maine for 2014. The afternoon puzzles had a couple of fun word puzzles (one of which I almost completed), followed by the annual flat competition. I solved with a couple of other people and we managed to get through a fair number of the flats.

Saturday night’s dinner speaker was Mark Saltveit of The Palindromist. The most significant thing he said was about the need for people to find their tribe, the people who are crazy in the same way they are. That’s definitely something I relate to – and I have been fortunate enough over the years to find a few tribes to hang out with.

The Saturday night extravaganza is always a highlight of con and this year’s, by LunchBoy, Rubrick, and Story, was no exception. The premise involved a convention of aliens and solving puzzles to figure out what inappropriate gifts they tried to give one another. My only disappointment is that my team divvied things up in a way that meant that I didn’t get a look at a couple of the puzzles until after we were done. But we did finish, which is what I mostly care about.

I had intended to get to bed early on Saturday night but there were games going on. I played a round of Unspeakable Words, followed by a round of Cluesome. 2:30 a.m. isn’t all that late, right? (Actually, by con standards it isn’t.)

As for Sunday, there was a particularly extravagant breakfast, followed by the awards. Then I headed off to the airport. My flight from PDX to SFO was on time, but the flight home was delayed. It got delayed even more, turning it into a red-eye (versus the pink eye it started out as), when they stole our plane to replace one to EWR with a mechanical problem. At least they gave us less of a run-around than on the trip out. I got to IAD at about 4 a.m., which gave me just about enough time to go home, shower, change my clothes and have breakfast before being a zombie all day at work. The trip was worth it, but boy do I miss the customer service I used to get.

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