Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Let Us Now Mock Crappy Puzzles

I've got nothing against Mensa, qua Mensa. Let me just say that up front. Lately I've been working my way quite happily through Henry Cox and Emily Rathvon's Mensa Cryptic Crosswords 2, and enjoying the cleverness and high quality of the puzzles inside. So Mensa has done good things, and I'm not actually sharpening my axe here with malice aforethought.

But while I was looking around my temporary country lodgings the other day, I noticed a puzzle book on the shelf titled Mensa Publications Presents the Ultimate Puzzle Challenge--a book of 400 or so puzzles published in Britain in 1995. Not only is the book ugly--printed on something just one step above butcher paper--but the puzzles are the same ten or so types of puzzles repeated over and over again: Deduce what these symbols weigh; Find what's next in this series; Complete this magic square. They're almost all mathematical, and they're all pretty damned boring. (Admittedly, there is a color section on much nicer paper, with color versions of these same puzzles, but since I'm colorblind there's no point in torturing myself with those.)

And yet, as I was flipping through it, I noticed a few other types of puzzles that were even worse. Take, for example, the Aunt Hildegarde puzzles. As aficionados of Aunt Hildegarde puzzles know, they follow a distinct pattern: Aunt Hildegarde has just visited [Name of Relative], and now she loves X but hates Y... and you have to figured out what's guiding her preferences. If she visited Uncle Wallace, and she loves CHALLAH but hates BREAD, loves OFFENSE but hates DEFENSE, and loves MOUSSAKA but hates FUDGE, you might guess that she likes double letters--as exampled by the double L's in Uncle Wallace's name. It's a potentially fun type of puzzle, and when done well, the variations are always interesting: she visits Uncle Septimus and only likes words that contain chemical symbols; she visits Aunt Mildred and only likes words that contain the names of colors; she visits Cousin Liv and likes finding Roman numberals; and so on.

In the Mensa Ultimate Puzzle Challenge, here are the answers to the three Aunt Hildegarde puzzles: she doesn't like words with S; she likes words containing a U; and--in a puzzle that said, "She likes LILLE but hates PARIS, she likes ANTWERP but hates BERLIN"--it turns out she doesn't like capital cities. Three puzzles, no mental challenge at all worth mentioning. What a depressing waste.

But, having established that the editor (Robert Allen, director of Mensa Publications) is enigmatically tone-deaf, I was appalled further by his occasional tendency to add old-fashioned, full-page riddles. Bad Riddle #1 says in essence,

"Little Johnny wanted to go under the sea. Although his father protested [I've cut out a lot of tedious dialogue], they eventually agreed to do so, even though neither of them swim, there would be real sharks (who somehow wouldn't hurt them), and they were afraid of getting wet ('we won't get wet,' said Johnny). Johnny and his dad are not going diving, or taking a trip in a glass-bottomed boat. So how are they going under the sea without coming to any harm?"

The answer, it should pain you to hear, is, "Johnny wants to go through the glass tunnel at an aquarium." Which ought to, but does not, include the subclause, "...which, in the interest of keeping the puzzle consistent, was actually placed under a real sea, not a series of tanks made to simulate it for tourists." But even after that addition, I feel like adding further, "Or they hopped in a submarine; that would work too."

Bad Riddle #2: "A man came home to find himself locked out of his house and his backyard full of water. An upstairs window was open [which would allow him to get in and unlock the door], but he had no ladder to help him reach it...Then he had an idea. What was it? It did not involve ladders, steps, or climbing up the walls of the house."

I'll give you one sentence of spoiler space, so stop here if you want to think about it before proceeding.

Answer: "The water in his garden was snow. He rolled several giant snowballs, built a pyramid, and climbed up."

I came up with a better answer. "The snow was actually frozen ethane, and he was able to use it for fuel to propel himself skyward. Did I mention he was wearing a jetpack?" This is a guy who will go to any lengths to avoid simply smashing a downstairs window.

Bad Riddle #3: "I have five hands, but you would pass me in the street without comment. Why?"

Official Answer: "Because three of them are on my wrist watch."

My answer: Because they're hidden in my backpack, where I keep all my victims' trophies.

But once you get to the end of the book, in the Brain-Buster section, you get two of the crappiest puzzles of all. Here's the final, brain-busting, be-all-and-end-all riddle:

Bad Riddle #4: "Joshua Shrimp had been at sea for forty years and in that time he had been around the globe many times. However, he had always spent his nights in bed and on dry land. How?"

The answer is so depressingly bad that I've relegated it to the Comments section so you can click it for yourself.

That would be bad enough. But here's one of the final word puzzles. It consisted of a picture of three crates, each one covered with letters. Three crates, mind you. Now here's the text.

Bad Word Puzzle:


These letters, when joined together correctly, make up a novel and its author. Can you spot it?"

It's really that bad. "Lets just take a title and its author, scramble all the letters, and ask people to reconstruct whatever the hell we were thinking about." But to compound the insult, the visuals of the crates are completely irrelevant to the puzzle! It's not a clue, it's not a "take one letter at a time out of each crate in order" type of thing; he just literally threw down a bunch of random letters and said, "You know, I've got some clip art of a crate that would work here; three of them would give me enough space for all these letters. Good luck, solvers!" This is, hands down, the laziest goddamned excuse for an alleged "puzzle" I've ever seen, lazily tossed off by someone who doesn't seem aware that puzzles are supposed to be fun.

The answer to that one is also in Comments. In the meantime, I have a puzzle for Robert Allen:

The following letters below--divided into three groups for no reason at all--can be rearranged to spell out a three word message. Can you figure out what it's saying?


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Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Answer to Bad Riddle #4:

"Joshua Shrimp was the captain of a riverboat ferry. The globe he went around was a decorative one he kept in his cabin."

Cheapness aside, this also makes me want to write a paper that would include the sentence, "After this, Mark Twain went to sea, in the sense that he rode on a riverboat and rivers wind up in seas."

Answer to Bad Wordplay Puzzle:

A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, by Marcel Proust.

Yep. It's in a foreign language, which (oops!) makes it practically impossible to solve. Maybe the crates were a hint at that fact, representing the words coming in a shipment from some distant place. Or else, just possibly, Robert Allen is a dick.

5/30/2008 11:29 AM  
Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

I guessed the decorative globe part, but my interpretation of "at sea" was that Monsieur Shrimp had been chronically confused and disoriented his entire life.

Maybe he was a Mensa member.

5/30/2008 11:57 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

Egad. Believe it or not, I saw "Marcel Proust" in those letters, but didn't see any "i" for "Things", so I gave up. Ah well.

5/31/2008 8:53 PM  
Blogger that atheist guy said...

Hey, did you see the latest Onion? In their "corrections" section they wrote:

"A clue in last week's crossword puzzle read: "either/or." One correct answer was "this" and the other "that," which also fit. The Onion regrets causing any confusion."

6/01/2008 9:26 AM  

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