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The 42nd American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this past weekend. I spent Friday morning at my office, trying to get through a couple of annoying tasks, but left in plenty of time to take an afternoon train up to Stamford, Connecticut. The travel went smoothly and I had a pleasant but windy walk from the train station to the Stamford Marriott. Last year, they’d left a decorated sugar cookie in my room. This year, it was a black and white cookie, which is even better. I suppose a ginger-lemon cookie would be too much to hope for next year.

Friday night’s puzzles started with a fun group game called "Hear Here" by Mike Shenk. The idea was that each team got a crossword grid and Mike read clues in random order. The trick was that the clues was auditorily ambiguous. For example, did he mean "seas" or "cease" or "seize?" Due to the random order, we sometimes had to wait a while to find crossings to resolve which of several possible answers to fill in. This was a lot of fun and we had reasonable teamwork. That was followed by the usual "Pick Your Poison," in which you chose which variety puzzles to do. The first round offered Cryptic, Puns and Anagrams, or Acrostic. I went with the Puns and Anagrams, largely because I figured more people would do the Cryptic. The second round had Marching Bands, Spiral, and Split Decisions. I’m not a big fan of the latter, and figured the Marching Bands would be my best bet. I did finish both puzzles I chose, though not fast enough to win a prize.

Then came the wine and cheese reception. It was very crowded and loud, so I settled for one glass of rose, said hello to several people (including meeting some who were new to me), but went up to my room earlyish.

The main event started Saturday at 11 in the morning. With a record attendance of 741 competitors, there were two ballrooms in use. I went to the downstairs one, which has better lighting and slightly more elbow room. Note that I will refrain from spoilers here, though I did put one in rot13 in the comments.

Puzzle 1 was by Kathy Weinberg, who was a new ACPT constructor. The first puzzle is, basically, a warm-up and I solved it easily enough in just about a typical time for me. The theme was straightforward and, frankly, I think one could easily have solved it without paying any attention to the theme. But that is also typical of Puzzle 1. As a couch potato of my acquaintance says, "Sofa, so good."

Puzzle 2 was by Joel Fagliano. As it was handed out, Will Shortz said something suggesting it would be particularly difficult. I know Joel is capable of diabolical puzzles (he wrote last year’s Puzzle 5, which killed me), so I was concerned. As it happened, there was fill in the northwest corner that was easy for me and, once I had the first few letters of 25A, I immediately knew what the revealer was. So I grasped the theme fairly quickly and zoomed through the puzzle. Zoomed is, of course, relative, as I was a good 9 minutes slower than Dan Feyer and Joon Park. Still, I was happy with how it went.

Puzzle 3 was by Patrick Berry. The theme was straightforward – at least for a human solver, as Dr. Fill stumbled with it. I did have some hesitation over 37D, which I had never heard of before, but I was confident in the crossings. As we broke for lunch, I felt good about how the tournament was going.

I felt less good about the long wait for the elevator, but I wasn’t up to walking to the 14th floor to get my jacket. Warm clothing retrieved, [personal profile] bugsybanana and I walked over to the mall food court and caught up on both puzzles and life in general over lunch. I should probably note that they’ve closed off half the food court (presumably for renovation) which did make things a bit slower. But there was still more than enough time.

Puzzle 4 by Jeff Stillman was interesting. There was some difficult fill. A lot of people had trouble with 23A. I’d seen that word before, at least – unlike 44A. I will admit to not having completely understood one aspect of the theme, but I was confident in the crossings. I thought this was a good challenge, but admit I didn’t love this puzzle, largely because I didn’t think 3 of the 4 theme answers were all that interesting. Still, I was glad to have solved cleanly – and psyching myself up for the dreaded Puzzle 5.

I was rather relieved to see that Puzzle 5 was by Evan Birnholz. He writes the puzzle for the Sunday Washington Post, so I do his puzzles a lot. While he is capable of being diabolical and this puzzle was tricky, I thought it was the easiest Puzzle 5 in my ACPT experience. I finished it with a little over 5 minutes to spare. I didn’t completely grasp the theme until after I had completely filled it in, but I had an "aha" moment, sussed it out, and successfully double checked my answers. I was past the worst of it and solving cleanly, so I felt good. I was in 162nd place (out of 741) at that point.

I should also note that the clock stopped working some time during Puzzle 5. They had a clock display on the screen that they’d used to project the main ballroom, but it was a lot harder to read. It was a minor glitch, but an annoying one.

And then I blew it with a dumb error on Puzzle 6. That was a straightforward puzzle by Lynn Lempel. I didn’t have a problem with knowing the answers – I just couldn’t write! Imagine writing a four letter word. Let’s make this more interesting and use FUCK as an example (which was not, of course, the actual word in question). If you are me, it is all too easy to get ahead of yourself and accidentally write FUKK. I should have caught that via the crossings – especially since I had caught myself doing more or less the same thing a couple of rows above. But, no. Maybe I was just tired. Maybe it was my frustration over not being able to see the clock easily. Maybe it was gremlins or the New York Yankees (more or less the same thing in my book). But, whatever, I ended up with an incorrect square. I blew the clean solving and dropped 60 or so places in the standings.

I was, in fact, very tired and opted for resting versus eating dinner (though I did chitchat with some folks before going up to my room to collapse). I made it downstairs for the Saturday evening program, which started with the MEmoRiaL award, which is given for lifetime achievement in puzzle construction. (It is spelled that way in memory of Merl Reagle.) This year it went to the highly deserving Mike Shenk. Not only is he prolific, but he has invented excellent forms of variety puzzles.

That was followed by Matt Ginsberg’s annual report on his AI program, Dr. Fill. I lost interest in the subject after maybe a couple of years attending the ACPT, so I was glad that Matt had a much snappier (and shorter) presentation this year.

The final Saturday night event was a live version of HQ Trivia. There were several rounds with people standing if they knew the correct answer to a question (and sitting down when they were out) until under 10 people were left. Those people went up to the front of the room and held up cards with a number to indicate their answer choice, until only one was left. The winner of each round got $50. I never made it to the final rounds, alas, but I did have fun.

After basking in glory the previous evening, Mike Shenk was the constructor of Sunday’s Puzzle 7. I figured out the theme reasonably quickly, but was a bit slower than I’d have liked to be. Still, I did solve cleanly, which was a relief.

The rest of the day involved the talent show, which was preceded by a brief taping of a get well wish for Alex Trebek. (There are a lot of folks at the ACPT who’ve been on Jeopardy, myself included.) Then came awards and the finals. Dan Feyer set a new record with his 8th victory. An interesting footnote is that the B Division finals were vacated because of an earlier scoring error, which hadn’t been caught in time.

As for how I did, I was (obviously) disappointed in my error on Puzzle 6. But I did do better than last year – and every year except 2017. I’ll also note that even if I had solved Puzzle 6 cleanly, I wasn’t fast enough to have made it up to the B Division. More importantly, I saw lots of friends and had a good time. Which is really what it’s about.

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)
2018 – 254 / 674 (62nd percentile)
2019 – 220 / 741 ((70th percentile)
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2018 was fairly stressful, largely due to a work situation that appears to be resolving itself. And, of course, the state of the world didn't help.

Books: I read 40 books, which is probably the fewest since I learned how to read. Also, surprisingly, only 6 were non-fiction. This is a little misleading in that I don’t count guidebooks, which end up being most of what I read when I’m traveling. My logic for not counting them is that I rarely read them cover to cover.

Favorites were Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, and Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

The book I hated the most was Murder By Sacrilege by D. R. Meredith.

I really need to do a used bookstore run. I’m not even sure how many books I have ready to go out.

Volksmarch: I did three events – in New Orleans, Atlantic City, and Charleston, West Virginia. The latter was a State Capital walk. I should get back into focusing on special programs, but first I need to resolve some issues with my right foot.

Travel: I started the year out in Singapore. My last trip of the year was to the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas and St. John) which is only semi-international, involving a dependency of the U.S., not a separate country. My major trip of the year was my family roots trip to Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus (plus a part of a day in Zurich), which was incredible.

Domestic trips included business trips to Colorado Springs and to Layton, Utah. Personal travel was to New Orleans, Stamford (Connecticut, for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament), Atlantic City,New York (4 times, including a Brooklyn Cyclones game), Portland (Oregon), Rhode Island (mostly for a PawSox game), Memphis (Redbirds game), Milwaukee (Wisconsin for the National Puzzlers’ League con), Frederick (Maryland, for Loserfest. It counts because I did stay overnight), Richmond (Virginia – and, again, staying overnight makes it count), and Charleston (West Virginia). It seems unlikely, but it appears that I had an entire year without going to California.

Puzzles: This was pretty much a middle of the pack year. I ended up in the 62nd percentile at the ACPT, the 39th percentile at the Indie 500, and 55.7th percentile at Lollapuzzoola. Annoyingly, I didn’t solve cleanly at any of them.

I also had a good time (as always) at the NPL con. That included bringing along a hand-out puzzle, which I think went over reasonably well. I am planning for a walk-around puzzle for the 2019 con, since it’s in Boulder, Colorado, a city I have spent a lot of time in.

Ghoul Poul: I didn’t do particularly well in my second year. I finished 14th out of 20 participants, with 70 points. The people I scored with were Prince Henrik, Barbara Bush, John McCain, and George HW Bush.

Genealogy: I did the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project, which got me writing about a few family stories, but didn’t really drive much research. I did, however, get in touch with a few unknown cousins (two from the FAINSTEIN family, one from the KHAIKEL / MEDINTS family) and made some progress on the GOLDWASSER family (my maternal grandfather’s mother’s side).

Baseball: I only made it to one Major League game this year – Red Sox at Nats on the Fourth of July. But it was a good year since: 1)I got to three minor league games (Memphis, Pawtucket, and Coney Island) and 2)my BoSox won the World Series.

Culture: If I counted correctly, I went to 16 musicals, 2 operas and 14 plays. My favorite musicals were Dave at Arena Stage and Me and My Girl at Encores in New York. My favorite plays were Heisenberg and 4380 Nights at Signature Theatre and Becoming Di. Ruth and Treyf at Theatre J. I also went to one ballet, one Cirque du Soleil shows, and 6 concerts. The most significant of the latter was seeing Jonathan Richman at the 9:30 Club. I had wanted to see him live for ages, so I was really glad to have the opportunity.

I went to One Day University 5 times. And I saw 16 movies, of which my favorites included What We Do in the Shadows, The Shape of Water. and Bathtubs Over Broadway

There was also a bunch of storytelling in there, some with me on stage and more with me in the audience.

Goals: I had six goals for 2018. So how did I score? I got about halfway through 2 afghans, so that gives me 33% on the goal to finish three. I did nothing about organizing photos, though I did find out about scanning resources at the library. I read 40 books, including 1 poetry book, so I I get 77% and 33% for that goal. I think I entered the Style Invitational twice, so will give myself 33% there. I did 3 Volksmarch events, so get 50% there. And I think I got through roughly 65% of catching up on household paperwork. I figure that gives me somewhere around a 40% on the year, which is not terrible, but not wonderful, either.

So what about goals for 2019?

  • Finish shredding and filing household paperwork.

  • Organize my genealogy files, both physical and electronic.

  • Organize my yarn stash. Ideally this would include using up at least 25% of the yarn. While I am at it, I also need to organize knitting needles and crochet hooks and the like.

  • Organize photos. Yes, really.

  • Read at least 52 books.

  • Enter the Style Invitational at least 4 times.

  • Do a 20 minute or longer workout at least 3 times a week.

  • Bring lunch to work at least twice a week.

  • Eat fruit every day.

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It’s time to do some of the catching up. Let’s start with a trip to New York in August, just before I went on my real vacation.

Lollapuzzoola 11: I’ve said before that Lollapuzzola is my favorite crossword tournament. It’s smaller than the ACPT and less pop-culture heavy than the Indie 500. Historically, the puzzles have been just a little bit wilder in their themes, although I thought that this year’s were actually pretty much on the normal side. Even without cell phones going off or people imitating cats, I still had a good time.

The travel was mildly stressful, as there was some sort of Yellow Line delay and I got to Union Station just as my train to New York was boarding. Still, the train is definitely the best way to make the DC to NYC trip and it’s not like I actually missed it. I stayed at the Renaissance on West 35th Street, which is convenient to Penn Station and proved to be quieter than most of the other New York hotels I’ve tried. (My favorite is still the Library Hotel, but it is hard to get a good rate there, so it’s splurgy. I also love the Algonquin, which is a good use of Marriott points.)

They’d moved locations this year to Riverside Church, which is across the street from Grant’s Tomb, aka one of the New York City tourist attractions I have never actually gone to. It’s up near Columbia University and it had been over 40 years since I’d been over that way. It’s changed less than one might expect, though there are more chain restaurants on Broadway than there were back in the mid-1970’s when I went to a Saturday science program for high school students at Columbia.

Puzzle 1 was by Aimee Lucido. The theme was easy to figure out, though I think someone could have solved the puzzle without really grasping it. I solved it cleanly in 12:16. That’s slower than the top solvers, but still reasonably respectable.

Puzzle 2 by Erik Agard and Yacob Yonas didn’t go quite as well for me. I didn’t completely grasp the theme. The "aha" moment struck about 5 minutes after I turned the puzzle in. That wouldn’t have made much of a difference – but there was a crossing clue I didn’t know the answer to. Had I completely understood what was going on (or, at least, read the theme clue a bit more carefully), I wouldn’t have had an error. I had a decent time (11:59) and, frankly, I doubt that taking another minute or two would actually have helped. So much for the goal of solving cleanly.

Puzzle 3 by Patti Varol went better. I enjoyed the theme (which I understood) and solved it cleanly in 13:05. I think the lunch break followed that, during which I went with several people over to Sweet Green, a salad chain that has good food but annoys me on the grounds that they don’t take cash. My willingness to go with the group is based on my usual prioritization of sociability over at least some of my persnicketiness.

I didn’t think that Jeff Chen’s Puzzle 4 was particularly interesting, though I solved it cleanly. It took me 23:39, which was also reasonable.

Puzzle 5, by Paolo Pasco, had the sort of theme that I always enjoy (and which I figured out reasonably easily). I solved it cleanly in 23:59, which, while respectable, was a tad slower than I should have been.

I ended up finishing 112th out of 253. That’s the 55.7th percentile. (If someone happened to see what I said on facebook, I only just now realized how to look only at the individual competitors and not include the pair solvers.)

To keep up the history, that isn’t quite my best showing at Lollapuzzoola, but it’s decent. I would, however, have preferred to have solved cleanly, instead of having that error in puzzle 2.

2012 – 42.6
2013 – 44.6
2014 – 57.6
2015 – 51.0
2016 – 59.1
2017 – 53.7
2018 – 55.7

I had the traditional pizza for dinner. And then I took the subway back downtown for my equally traditional theatre-going.

SpongeBob SquarePants: I had chosen to see SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical on the grounds that: 1) it had gotten pretty good reviews and 2) it was closing in September. The plot involves the town of Bikini Bottom in a crisis, involving a volcano that is about to erupt. SpongeBob enlists the aid of a squirrel scientist named Sandy Cheeks and his best friend, Patrick (a sea star) to save the day.

The story is fairly idiotic, but I do like that things are saved via science – and by a female scientist at that. The score consisted of a series of singles by a number of pop artists and was fairly forgettable. As for the performances, Ethan Slater was good in the title role, but I thought that Gavin Lee as Squidward really stole the show. Overall, this is really geared towards families with young children and would probably appeal more to people who love, say, The Lion King, which I also described as a show where I walked out humming the costumes.

I took a relatively early train home. I still had time to walk up West 35th Street and photograph the plaque which marks Nero Wolfe’s home, though there is no longer a brownstone there.

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Celebrity Death Watch: Oliver Knussen composed an opera based on the book Where the Wild Things Are. Melanie Kantrowitz was a poet and activist, writing a lot about Jewish women. Marion Woodman was a psychologist who wrote The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, an excessively Jungian analysis of eating disorders. Peter Carington was the Secretary General of NATO from 1984 to 1988. John A. Stormer was a propagandist, best known for None Dare Call It Treason. Henry Morgenthau III was a television producer. Carlo Benneton co-founded the clothing company that bears his name. Nathaniel Reed co-wrote the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Puzzle Follow-up: If you are interested in the puzzle I brought to the NPL con, here’s a link to it.
road to bocon puzzle

While I am Linking to Things - a Friendzy: Here is ghost_light’s birthday friendzy. Probably of more interest to the LJ crowd vs. DW but lots of us use both, n’est ce pas? And lots of people could use more friends.

Weather and Baseball: We had one hell of a storm yesterday afternoon. Fortunately, it was fairly brief, but my power must have gone out at home for a few minutes (based on the kitchen clocks) and there was a lot of flooding. It did stop hours before the All-Star Game, at least. I will admit that I don’t really care about the All-Star Game, but my obsession with Jewish baseball players has me happy that Alex Bregman was the MVP.

Speaking of Treason: I am not quite convinced that Trump’s remarks at the press conference with Putin, disturbing as they were, qualify by the constitutional definition. The question is how one defines an actual enemy. Without a war having been formally declared, I could argue that Russia is not officially an enemy, no matter how much I believe they are in practical terms. Lawyers complicate everything.

Further Proof I am Tired: I saw a reference to a DC superhero show and it took me a minute to realize they were talking about comics, not the District of Columbia.

Ch-ch-changes: I’ve decided to write about only new graze snacks, as I was finding it hard to find things to say about the umptyumpth bag of microwave popcorn.

I need to get better control of my time and space. I am not sure how to do that, but I am thinking I should aim for leaving one unscheduled weekend a month. What I really want to change is the rotation of the earth, but I’ve been advised that is not within my bailiwick.
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I’ve been out of town for a few days, this time in Milwaukee for the National Puzzlers’ League Convention. This was my tenth time attending this event, which moves around every year. I normally try to come in a few days early to do some additional touring. This year, however, I have been rather swamped at work and I had been to Milwaukee a few times before. I flew into ORD on Wednesday night (after a brief, weather-related delay at DCA) and stayed at an airport hotel that night. The Courtyard by Marriott in Des Plaines is right next to the Rivers Casino and you may take it as a sign of how exhausted I was that I did not go there at all. Alas, I was not really any less exhausted in the morning, as the hotel’s sound-proofing was inadequate and there was a lot of traffic noise.

I got a ride to Milwaukee with a couple of other puzzle people (Gotcha and Fork – I should mention that NPL members use noms instead of their real names and I will refer to them as such here). We got to the con hotel, the InterCONtinental, about noonish. Fortunately (and a bit surprisingly) my room was available. I left my bag there and went down to the 2nd floor, where there was a table for handouts. I put out the puzzle I had brought and picked up a bunch of puzzles others had provided. I also did assorted socializing, which culminated in having a quick lunch with a few people and then going off to do a walk-around puzzle, involving a mixture of puzzles and trivia questions centered on a pub crawl down Old World Third Street. When we got back to the hotel, I went to my room to rest for a bit. Then I went down to the lobby to meet up with a group to go out for dinner. There is a pre-arranged opportunity for people to go out in groups to interesting restaurants and I ended up with 7 other people at Mader’s, a nearby German restaurant. The menu is a bit meat-heavy, but I was able to order trout, which was quite tasty. I also had an interesting grapefruit kolsch, which was a sweeter beer than I would normally drink, but went well with the trout – and with the warm weather. It was an excellent couple of hours of good food and good conversation.

The official program started Thursday evening. Things started with first time attendees introducing themselves. That was followed by Krewe by Two by Joey and Kryptogram, in which we were divided in pairs and had to come up with yes/no questions which we thought half of the people would answer each way to. There was also voting on which were the most interesting questions. My favorite question had to do with whose zodiac sign ended in the letter "o." It didn’t come anywhere near a 50-50 split as we had a disproportionate number of Virgos at the table. I enjoyed this game, except that most of the teams were moving around between tables and that is always a bit challenging in a crowded room. That was followed by Three of a Kind by Bluff. In that game, teams tried to guess words in a category and predict the third one from the first two clues. We did reasonably well, but not brilliantly at this. The final game of the official program that night was Four-Letter Follies by WXYZ. This involved pairs listing four-letter words in various categories, with the catch that the two people were trying not to use any of the same letters. We also changed partners after every round. I came up with a good strategy in which one of us would try to use the vowels A, O, and Y, while the other would use E, I, and U. We didn’t plan anything about the consonants, but this worked well enough for me to end up with one of the high scores on the game.

But there is also the unofficial program. I played two Jeopardy! games – one by B-side (Milwaukee Jeopardy!) and one by Cazique and Saxifrage (Last Minute Jeopardy!) Both were rather too pop-culture heavy for me to do particularly well and I caught on to a key aspect of the latter way too slowly, but I had fun. I think I went to bed about 2 a.m.

I started Friday with a Volksmarch around downtown Milwaukee. There’s some pretty cool architecture, but I was limited in time to enjoy it as I was meeting a local friend for lunch. TJ and I had a reasonably good meal at Shah Jee’s, which serves cheap Pakistani food. We also walked around Bastille Days a bit before she had to go back to work. Then I went back to the hotel and decided I needed a nap before doing much of anything else. I was supposed to co-solve one of the conference cryptics with Carpe Diem, but she was looking for me while I was napping. And when I got up to look for her, she was napping. I ended up co-solving Mr. E’s cryptic with Dugeel, after which Carpe Diem and I got started on Fraz’s. We got fairly far, but there were other things to do – like eat dinner and do more puzzles.

The official program on Friday started with Points of Order by Jangler and Noam, which was a trivia game involving ranking a set of answers in a given order. For example, one question required listing a series of cities in order of population. My team was sure that Miami was the largest city, but I guess the standard metropolitan statistical areas are not what one would expect, as both Memphis and Milwaukee turned out to be larger. We also ended up failing to score on one question just because we didn’t manage to copy our answers from scratch paper to the answer sheet in time. Next up was Dropdown by Arcs. This involved listing answers that fit various categories, with the catch that you had to try to use the same letters in each answer as in the longer one below it. For some reason, this was hard for me to get my head around, though I did contribute a few useful answers. Finally, there was Swap Quiz by Rubrick, in which a set of trivia questions had words swapped between them, making ridiculous questions you needed to try to answer. I could answer most of them by the second question, but I did forget what was going on a couple of times, so didn’t score particularly well.

As for the unofficial program Saturday night, I played Noam’s Jeopardy! game, which was excellent. I did quite well, largely because he had some categories that were right up my alley, e.g. Centenarians, a subject of great interest to those of us who play in a ghoul pool. Then I played two of Dart’s games. Faster is always fun, albeit difficult. New this year was The Big Idea which involved guessing answers from a series of icons, which were revealed in groups. I was terrible at this, because I am just not a good visual thinker. We finished about 2:30 a.m. and I went to bed by 3.

After breakfast on Saturday, Carpe Diem and I finished Fraz’s cryptic. Then came the business meeting. The good news is that 2020 will be in Toronto. The bad news is that I won’t be able to be at next year’s con in Boulder, Colorado, as it is going to conflict with an eclipse cruise I will be on in South Pacific. That’s disappointing, but the con scheduling was driven by a significantly cheaper hotel rate and I can't fault people for voting in accord with their financial interests. And, of course, the cruise scheduling was driven by the sun and the moon. Oh, well, it’s not like I’m not already used to my life being a schedule conflict.

After lunch, there were a few official program games. That started with Time Test by Willz, which consisted of seven wordplay puzzles. I did not quite finish these in the allotted half-hour. I did better with Meshing Around by Manx. After that was the flat-solving competition, which I barely glanced at before opting for a nap in lieu of attempting it. Flats are a sort of puzzle, essentially cryptic clues in verse, which have a lot of variant forms, only a few of which I am really comfortable with. I am considerably better at napping.

There was a glitch with the con photo as we had to change locations, supposedly for insurance reasons. I am not sure how having a lot of people on narrow steps is better from any liability standpoint. I really have no interest in these things, so I should probably have just tried for a longer nap. Then came dinner, including the Golden Sphinx Awards (given for contributions to The Enigma), and a bunch of waiting around for the extravaganza, a set of linked puzzles, which is generally one of the highlights of con.

This year’s theme was Charm School, which had each time attempting to graduate from a school of magic. There were 9 puzzles to start with, with the twist that each answer had to be decoded using a set of five "magic wands" with letters on them. Each solved puzzle got you an additional puzzle, but the important part was that solving all of the first 9 got you a metapuzzle. My team could have been more efficient with how we approached some of the puzzles, particularly Puzzle 9, which had a very confusing conclusion, not helped by our getting bad advice when we asked for help. (That’s the catch with having multiple authors of an extravaganza, not all of whom apparently understood all aspects of it.) While this wasn’t my favorite set of extravaganza puzzles ever, there were some good ones and I did think the final payoff from the meta was very clever. I also felt that everybody on our team did contribute to solving, which is important to me.

After the extravaganza, I co-solved another cryptic with Capital R. I ended up going to bed relatively early (maybe 1:30 a.m.?) since I had an early-ish flight Sunday morning. It’s a good thing I believe in getting to airports early, as my 8:30 flight from MKE to ORD was delayed and I would have missed my connection had I not been there early enough to switch to the 7 a.m. flight. That even gave me time to eat breakfast at ORD before my flight to DCA. Our landing got delayed about 20 minutes as they put us in a holding pattern to clear the air space for a VIP. Still, I got home at a reasonable hour and promptly collapsed.

I feel like I did less stuff than I have at many previous cons. I also feel like I barely spoke with a few people who I usually spend more time hanging out with. I have no idea where some of the time went. But I did have a lot of fun and it was good just to get away from work for a couple of days.
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Celebrity Death Watch:Dick Tuck was a political prankster. Lla Brennan was a restaurateur. John Julius Norwich wrote about history and travel. Jill Ker Conway wrote a well-received memoir, The Road from Coorain, and became the first woman president of Smith College. Nick Meglin was an editor of Mad Magazine. Bruce Kison was a baseball pitcher, including two World Series championships with Pittsburgh and a brief stint with the Boston Red Sox. Frank Carlucci was the Secretary of Defense from 1987-1989 (under Reagan). Russell Nype was a Tony-winning actor. Kate Spade was a fashion designer.

Camelot: I went to see Camelot at the Shakespeare Theatre Company on Friday night. I have a complicated relationship with this show, since we did a production of it when I was in 6th grade. That was largely on the grounds that we were studying the Middle Ages, but it was really because our teacher, Mr. Ryder, was into musicals. And, while we used the songs, we rewrote large portions of the script. Most of the songs were sung by the entire class. As a result, I know the score well, but I had never actually seen the show. (I should also mention that the show got me addicted to Dark Shadows because I made paper mache trees for the set with a couple of other girls, who insisted we had to watch that soap opera while working on them.) I have, however, read The Once and Future King, which is largely the basis for the book.

So how was it? It’s rather a mess, really. For one thing, there is no way to tell how much time passes between events. There must be some time for word to spread to France about the Round Table and for rumors about the relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere to reach Scotland. But there don’t seem to be any knights going on quests, so who knows? Even King Pellinore seems to have given up on the Questing Beast in favor of sleeping on a featherbed with a fluffy pillow. The score has a few notable moments. "If Ever I Would Leave You" is lushly romantic, but it has other songs that are easy to mock. I’m always tempted to change a lyric in "C’est Moi" from "a knight so extraordinaire" to "a knight so full of hot air." And then there are songs like "How to Handle a Woman," "The Lusty Month of May," and, especially, "Fie on Goodness"” which just scream that this is not Lerner and Loewe at their best. (I should note that my biggest objection to the score is that it doesn’t have a consistent tone and has few bits that suggest medieval England.)

I could forgive much of that if the performances were better. But Alexandra Silber was too operatic as Guenevere, without being able to enunciate clearly enough with all the vocal pyrotechnics. Ken Clark was uneven as Arthur, but that is probably as much the fault of the score (and direction) that doesn’t know quite what to do with his disillusionment. The best performance was by Nick Fitzer as Lancelot. Now, there’s a voice that suited the character!

Incidentally, I have whined before about STC’s failure to use local actors and this was another case of it. Also, while I am nitpicking, the set had Lancelot and Guenevere rolling around on a stage full of rose petals at the beginning of Act II. The petals stayed there, which may be practical from the standpoint of set design, but annoyed me, because I was distracted by them being swept around in random patterns by the long dresses and robes worn by many characters.

There is some interesting political relevance to the story, but, overall, the show just didn’t work well for me.

The Indie 500: Saturday was the Indie 500, DC’s local crossword tournament. There were plenty of out-of-town attendees, particularly the Boston crowd. They’d moved locations and there were more people competing this year.

The puzzles were fashion-themed this time, though how much the themes had to do with fashion varied. I will refrain from details to avoid spoilers for the solve-at-home crowd. (I have one spoiler in rot13 in the comments). Things started off well for me, with a decent time (5:24) on Puzzle 1, even though I entirely failed to notice the theme while solving it. The average time was 5:41, by the way.

One of the Indie 500 traditions is pie and the boxes of miniature pies showed up early this time – between puzzles 1 and 2. They were unlabeled. I got something that seemed to be a sort of lemony custard, which was quite tasty.

Puzzle 2 had a cute theme and was reasonably straightforward. I finished in 11:24, which was a little slower than I should have, but there wasn’t any particular thing that slowed me down. (And the average time was 12:57, so it isn’t as if that was a bad time.)

I really enjoyed the theme of Puzzle 3, as well. I got slightly slowed down by one of the theme clues being a Down clue, while the rest were Across clues. And there was one square that required me to go through the alphabet to figure out an answer. Still, I solved it cleanly in 17:08, while the average was 18:27. At the end of three, I was in 75th place out of 164 contestants.

Then it was time for lunch. I ended up at Rice Bar, which is a bibimbap place a couple of blocks away. It was good and filling, though I will probably choose a different sauce than the peanut sauce I got if I go there again.

Puzzle 4 was the hardest of the day and took me 24:43, while the average was 19:26. Part of my slow time was due to my being unsure about the spelling of one person’s name. I had a spelling issue on another name, too, though I figured that out quickly. But I got hung up on the southeast corner, largely due to an initial error on one clue. I did end up solving it cleanly, but I was slow.

Puzzle 5 was straightforward and had a cute theme. I finished it in 11:47, while the average was 12:52. Sounds fine, right? Well, it would have been if I hadn’t had a stupid error. I had attempted to correct an error, but did not manage to actually completely erase the wrong letter. All I can think of is that I used the eraser at the end of my pencil, instead of the click-eraser I had with me. The error cost me a lot of points. And I ended up finishing 100 out of 164. Aaargh.

While the scores were being tabulated for the finals, there was a game that involved finding names hidden in other words. I was pretty good at this, for the most part. One of my teammates was amazed that I knew the word "psaltery" (a sort of medieval stringed instrument). I will confess to actually owning one – and playing it, though not very well.

So here is how I’ve done over the years on the Indie 500:

2018 – 100 / 164 (39th percentile)
2017 – 64 / 128 (50th percentile)
2016 – 60 / 117 (49th percentile)
2015 – 61 / 100 (39th percentile)

Quajado: I got home and made quajado for a potluck on Sunday. For those who are unfamiliar with this dish, it’s a Sephardic egg, cheese, and vegetable dish, sort of like a crustless quiche. I baked it in a 9 inch square pan because that’s what I had, but one could use a round pan, of course. Here’s the recipe I used:

Chop one medium onion. Saute in olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes.

Grate two smallish zucchini.

Thaw one package of frozen chopped spinach. (You could, of course, use fresh spinach, but I had frozen on hand.)

Mix the vegetables together. Add 6 lightly beaten eggs, 1 cup of ricotta cheese, and a ½ cup of grated parmesan cheese. Add a couple of crushed garlic cloves and a teaspoon or so of crushed red pepper.

Pour the mixture into an oiled baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, until set and slightly browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

You can use other vegetables and other cheeses, e.g. farmer cheese instead of ricotta, gouda instead of parmesan. And you could throw in additional herbs.

JGSGW Luncheon: That potluck was the annual luncheon for the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington. The quajado went over well and I didn’t have any leftovers to bring home. I suspect that was, in part, because it was more original than, say, yet another kugel (there were three if I recall correctly). I had some interesting discussions about traveling in Eastern Europe. And I refrained from pointing out that Austria is really Central Europe.

The actual program had to do with things you can find in newspapers and the speaker had some interesting examples, e.g. several items from a small town newspaper that all mentioned the street that members of a prominent family lived on. There was also a lot of information about good sources for newspaper research, starting with the Library of Congress.

Washington Folk Festival: After the luncheon I raced across Maryland in the pouring rain to get to Glen Echo Park for the folk festival. The weather was truly atrocious and River Road was pretty close to living up to its name. Still, I made it there. My set wasn’t until 5 p.m., so I had time to listen to some other people’s stories beforehand. As for my set, I told a brief Herschele Ostropole story, followed by Mendel and the Enchanted Goat, and a Nasruddin story. I could probably have squeezed in one more story, but my watch was fast so I thought I had just one minute instead of about five.

The rain had let up (though not actually stopped) by the time I left. So it wasn’t bad driving home. I had time for grocery shopping and then ate supper before pretty much collapsing.
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The 41st American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this past weekend. I scrambled around on Thursday, packing and searching for various things I needed. Like pencils. I have a lot of mechanical pencils, which were divided between three plastic bags Oddly enough, all three bags turned up fairly readily, as did a folding hairbrush I had misplaced somewhere around November and several hundred clam clips (a sort of fastener that I have a fondness for because of a senior official I worked for some years ago who had banned them from the office). The other dimensional creatures that steal my belongings had, however, taken both my click erasers. Yes, almost all of those pencils have erasers, but it isn’t the same. I searched for erasers at my office on Friday morning and found nary a one. It also turned out that the only eraser for sale at Union Station in Washington, D.C. was at a highly inflated price at the Moleskin store. Of course, I bought it, which means that the other dimensional beings will return my click erasers. (And steal something else, because that is their way.)

Anyway, I had some things I needed to get done at work Friday morning, so took an afternoon train up to Stamford, Connecticut. Fortunately, there was no drama with Amtrak and the weather was reasonable enough to stroll from the train station to the Marriott. When I got up to my room, I found a lovely welcoming gift in the form of a sugar cookie decorated in a crossword theme. I had assumed that was related to my Marriott status, but it turns out that it was really because I had filled out their survey after the tournament last year. Regardless the reason, it was a lovely touch.

The Friday night kickoff event started with a brief talk by Richard Rogan, the editor of the Times (of London) crossword. British puzzles are, of course, cryptic, but his focus was less on the specifics of puzzles than on stories about the human side of things. The most memorable story involved a crossword competition that had an element of alcohol indulgence to it.

After his talk, there was a competition with three puzzles – a British cryptic by Richard Rogan, an American cryptic by Richard Silvestri, and a Puns and Anagrams by Mel Taub. I did not finish any of the three within the time limit, though I came close on the Puns and Anagrams. I had made a mistake on a word in the upper left-hand corner, which led me astray. I finished it up in my room in about 3 minutes the next morning. Someday I will finish the other two.

Then came the traditional wine and cheese reception. That is, of course, an opportunity to greet various people who I see all too infrequently. It also means staying up rather later than I normally would, but so it goes.

The actual competition starts late in the morning on Saturday. Note that I wil confine spoilers to comments which I will rot13. I got to the ballroom early so I could stake out a space with what I hoped would be adequate light and with a good view of the time clock. Because there had been a big jump in the number of contestants (with no clear reason for it), there was an overflow ballroom downstairs. People were relegated to that room based on their contestant numbers, with a different range of even numbers sent downstairs for each session (Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday). Contestant numbers are assigned alphabetically, by the way. At any rate, I was an odd number (appropriate, eh?) and so got to stay upstairs in the main room the whole time.

There was also a film crew from HBO, filming an episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. No, I don’t know when it will air (April or May). And, no, I don’t really consider competitive crosswording a sport. In situations like this, I tend to consider film crews a nuisance to be avoided, personally.

Puzzle 1 is ja straightforward warm-up. This year’s was by Tracy Gray. It was the sort of puzzle one could solve without noticing the theme at all. I solved it cleanly, but was about 2-3 minutes slower than my usual pace. I assume that was because I was having a carpal tunnel syndrome flare-up, making it harder than usual to write.

I was closer to my usual pace (or perhaps a minute or so slower) on Puzzle 2, which was by Zhouqin Burnikel. I will note that two of the clues were rather iffy. Neither made any difference, but they rankled my persnickety sensibilities.

Puzzle 3 was by Mike Shenk. As is typical of his puzzles, it had clever wordplay in the theme and interesting fill with a few challenging answers, but nothing I’d consider unreasonably obscure. I was slow, but I did finish with a couple of minutes to spare. There were quite a lot of people who did not manage to finish. I had gotten held up on two clues – one because I was unsure of how to spell something and the other because I had to go through the alphabet to figure out one square. I should also note that I had gotten the large print clues, which helped a little, but they do nothing to make it easier to read the numbers on the grid. One really needs to be able to see and to write to solve crosswords quickly. Who knew?

Like many people, I walked over to the food court at the mall for lunch. On the way back to the Marriott, I got to explain the theme for Puzzle 3 to Richard Rogan!

At that point, I was slow, but errorless. That continued through Puzzle 4, which was by Damon Gulczynski. The puzzle was not particularly difficult, but there was a potential trap involving some circled letters. I thought the instructions on this were quite clear, but some of the top solvers fell into the trap. I explicitly avoided it, but lost 2 minutes doing so as I went through the alphabet three times before realizing what the answer to one clue was. This is particularly annoying because it involved a clue I have seen several times before.

I had solved four puzzles cleanly, but the dreaded puzzle 5 lay ahead. This year’s Torquemada of the grid was Joel Fagliano, and he was, indeed, extremely evil. I actually figured out the theme fairly quickly, but thought I had only figured it out partially. Basically, I overthought things, leading me to decide I understood less of what was going on than I actually did. I completed slightly more than half of the puzzle and shattered my dreams of another clean tournament. My only consolation is how many other people also failed.

Puzzle 6 is intended to make people feel better and Lynn Lempel’s puzzles always do help me calm down. It was a nice, straightforward puzzle and a good example of why reading the title of a puzzle helps in figuring out the theme. I don’t remember any particular clue giving me pause. I will note that, of the theme answers, I particularly liked 59A.

That was it for Saturday’s puzzles. I went out to dinner with a rookie who had posted to facebook looking for dining companion. It turned out that she lives within a few miles of me and supports the Navy (though a different part than I do). What are the odds?

The evening program started with a short play, "Two Puzzles Walk Into a Bar" by Donna Hoke, performed by Maxwell and Emy Zener. What happens when a Crossword and a Sudoku see a tempting Pencil? It was cute. That was followed by the annual rundown of Dr. Fill’s performance. (Dr. Fill is an AI program for solving crosswords. It has trouble with certain types of themes. Earlier in the day, I’d heard a couple of people suggesting that to make things more fair, Dr. Fill should really be hooked up to a robot arm.) Frankly, I lost interest in Dr. Fill a few years ago and I’d rather have a half-hour play with a 10-minute rundown of computer solving than what we got. I didn’t stay to the very end and thus also missed the presentation of the MEmoRiaL award to Nancy Salomon. But I did get a little more sleep that way.

Puzzle 7 was by Patrick Berry, who is my favorite constructor of variety puzzles. Which is not to suggest that I don’t like his crosswords and this one was, indeed, a good one, with wordplay that made it my favorite of this year's tournament. I probably spent a minute or two longer than I really needed to checking my answers, largely because I had never heard of one of the terms that there was word play involving, but I still felt that I did okay on it.

The talent show involved a few clever parody songs. My single favorite moment was Jon Delfin singing "Don’t know why / Your hand is on my thigh / Stormy Daniels." (He then went on to do a song about seasonal allergies.

Finally, the finals. The final puzzle was by Sam Ezersky, who is really too young to use language like that in the A-level clues. (The finals for each division use the same grid, with different clues. The C-level ones are reasonable, the B-level ones are hard but doable, the A-level ones are ridiculous.) I was very pleased that Marie desJardins, who is an old friend (we first met on a mailing list for women on-line in the late 1980’s or so) won the B-division. And everyone was very excited to see Erik Agard win the A-division in a record setting time of under five minutes.

As for how I did, I was disappointed in both my slowness (though much of that was due to poor timing of some intermittent physical issues) and in my failure on Puzzle 5. When I left, I was at 250th place, but they have corrected a few people’s scores since then and I slipped a few spots. Oh, well, there’s always next year.

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)
2018 – 254 / 674 (62nd percentile)

By the way, the trip home was also drama free. I should probably unpack my backpack one of these days.
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2017 was a year of frustration and mild depression and not feeling very accomplished, even though I was actually reasonably successful in any normal sense. I think that much of the problem was spending time feeling stressed out about the state of the world. I am a news junkie at the best of times and that makes it hard to focus on anything when there is so much turmoil around.

Books: I read only 43 books in 2017, which is absurdly few for me. Admittedly, there were several long books (500+ pages) in there. I was also trying to clear out magazines, which didn’t help. The best books I read were Facing the Lions by Tom Wickes, Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich (whose true crime books I have enjoyed in the past), A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman, and The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I particularly recommend the latter two, both of which were selections for my book club, for charm and sheer likeability. They’re similar in that both deal with curmudgeonly, suicidal men having their lives turned around by unexpected encounters with other people. I also enjoyed several books in the Richard Bolitho series by Alexander Kent. That surprised me, as I didn’t think that the British Navy of the late 18th century would interest me at all. But they’re well-written and Bolitho is an absorbing character. As for the books I disliked, Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams sounded promising, but the novelization of the story of the Jewish woman who married Wyatt Earp bordered on pornographic. And The Guilty Ones by Dariel Telfer was badly written and intended to be deliberately shocking. I don’t object to sex and violence, but I don’t want them to be their own end.

I didn’t manage any used bookstore runs over the year, but I have about 100 books ready to go out. That should happen in the next couple of months.

Volksmarch: I did exactly one event in 2017. That was the state capital walk in Wyoming. I really need to get myself walking regularly again.

Travel: I had three foreign trips – Nicaragua in January, a long weekend in Budapest in May, and my recent trip to Singapore and Laos. The latter included completing a life list item by seeing the Plain of Jars. My other significant vacation was a trip to Carhenge in Nebraska for my 4th total solar eclipse. And, before anyone asks, yes, I have plans for a 5th. That trip also included going to Wind Cave National Park and doing the Cheyenne, Wyoming Volksmarch.

I had business trips to Los Angeles / San Diego, Colorado Springs, and Palo Alto.

Personal travel included trips to Albuquerque and Portland (Oregon) to go to memorial services for friends. Happier travels were to New York (three times – once for theatre-going, once for a flyertalk event plus theatre-going, and once for Lollapuzzoola), Stamford (Connecticut – the ACPT), Atlanta (to check off the new ballpark), Denver (twice – once for an annual party, once for a flyertalk event), Boston (NPL con), and Reno.

Puzzles: This was a big year for me in that I solved cleanly at both the ACPT and Lollapuzzoola. That moment of turning in a complete puzzle 5 at the ACPT was definitely one of the peak experiences of the year.

Ghoul Pool This was my first year playing and I think I did respectably. I ended up finishing 6th (out of 22 participants) with 99 points. The people I scored with were Irwin Corey, Liu Xiaobo, June Foray, Gord Downie, and Rose Marie.

Genealogy: The most significant things from my year in genealogy were making contact with a couple of branches of my family in Israel. That includes some Bruskin descendants and one of the children of cousin Shlomo. I also had both my uncle and brother submit DNA tests, though I have not done nearly enough with sorting through all of our matches.

Culture: If I counted right, I went to 22 musicals and 6 plays. Highlights included Milk and Honey at York Theatre, Fun Home and Mean Girls at the National Theatre, Kaleidoscope at Creative Cauldron, Laura Bush Killed a Guy produced by The Klunch at Caos on F, The Originalist at Arena Stage. My favorite show of the year was Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

I also went to the circus. And to 5 concerts, of which the most notable was the farewell concert by The Bobs. And, of course, I went to lots of storytelling events.

Goals: The short version of 2017 is that I am a lot better at planning things and starting things than I am at actually finishing them. Three of my goals involved completing various activities and, no, I didn’t finish anything, though I did make progress. I did manage a few indulgences and did contact some lost relatives with reasonably good success. So the year wasn’t a loss, but I’m not going to take undue credit. I’d say it was another 25-30% type of year.

So what about 2018 goals?

  • Finish three afghans. Yes, I know that sounds unlikely, but it is actually feasible if I work at it.

  • Organize photos. This includes uploading stuff that has been on camera cards for way too long, as well as scanning older photos. I should probably buy a scanner.

  • Read at least 52 books, including at least 3 poetry books.

  • Enter the Style Invitational at least 4 times.

  • Do at least 6 Volksmarch events.

  • Get caught up on household paperwork, i.e. shredding, filing, etc.

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I was going to skip Lollapuzzoola 10, since it was scheduled for the Saturday before the eclipse. But I figured out a way to make the travel work. Surprisingly, it is actually possible to fly from New York to Denver. Who knew?

I took the train up to New York, schlepping far more gear than for a normal weekend excursion. I had managed to get a good pre-paid rate at The Library Hotel, which is one of my favorite hotels in the world. Aside from a great location (41st and Madison, about a block from The Library at the Center of the Universe), how can one resist a hotel that asks you "fiction or nonfiction?" when you check in? In addition, it was raining when I arrived and I was there in time for their nightly wine and cheese reception. A glass of prosecco and some strawberries did wonders to revive me. (The rate also includes continental breakfast, but that’s less exciting.)

But this is supposed to be about Lollapuzzoola, not about great hotels of New York City. The weather was better in the morning and I enjoyed riding shank’s mare up Lexington Avenue. Before long, I was settled in at a table doing warm-up puzzles.

At most puzzle competitions, Puzzle #1 is the easiest. That was not quite the case here. Paolo Pasco is a young constructor who hides on the West Coast, presumably because he wants to live to be an old(er) constructor. The theme was reasonably challenging, though my solving picked up once I figured out what evil Paolo was up to. That "aha" moment is always enjoyable – and, in this case, let me solve the puzzle cleanly, albeit slowly. I definitely did not appreciate the guy at the table I was at who felt obliged to comment out loud "it’s too hard." That distraction probably slowed me down by at least 7 or 8 seconds.

Puzzle #2 by C. C. Burnikel was, in my opinion, the easiest of the day. But I do have some qualms about it. Some of the clues told you to do specific things and the instructions at the top indicated that one wouldn’t get full credit if one did not follow those instructions. However, there really wasn’t any way for the judges to know whether or not a given contestant had followed the instructions. I think most people did, but it’s hard to be sure.

Puzzle #3 was by Erik Agard. I have to admit that it had a bit more pop culture to it than I’d have preferred. I also thought that it was one where grasping the theme wasn’t essential to solving it. Both of those aspects made it less interesting than the other puzzles of the day.

Puzzle #4, which was by Francis Heaney, was intended to be the hardest of the day. It was, indeed, challenging, but I caught on to the trick quickly. With entertaining word play, this was my favorite of the day. It also helped me in the standings – especially since it seems that other people struggled more with it.

Puzzle #5 was by Joon Pahk. This was one where the theme didn’t make a lot of difference in solving. As for Puzzle #6 by Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson, let’s just say I was glad not to be a finalist

In the end, I solved cleanly (i.e. without making any errors) but was slower than I’d have preferred. I ended up 105th out of 227 contestants, which is the 53.7th percentile. Comparing to previous years (and, why yes, I am a wee bit compulsive), I was not surprised, but mildly disappointed:

2012 – 42.6
2013 – 44.6
2014 – 57.6
2015 – 51.0
2016 – 59.1
2017 – 53.7

Bottom line is that my accuracy has improved, but I remain solidly middle of the pack when speed (or lack thereof) gets factored in. I remind myself that this is a self-selected crowd. And the selection of puzzles really is excellent.

After puzzles, there was pizza and socializing. And then I retrieved my bag at the Library Hotel and was off to JFK to spend a night at a lesser hotel before flying off to Vacation Part 2.


Jul. 14th, 2017 03:46 pm
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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 ...


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.


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.


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