Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Prolific Pre-Shortzian Constructor Louise Earnest Turns 100—and 49 More Puzzles Are Identified!

Near the beginning of August, I received an e-mail from litzer, proofreader, and historian Todd Gross, who'd been contacted by Andy and Harriet Earnest, the children of pre-Shortzian constructor Louise Earnest.  Louise published 79 puzzles under the editorships of Margaret Farrar, Will Weng, and Eugene T. Maleska and was approaching her 100th birthday, which is today!  Happy Birthday, Louise!  Louise kept excellent records of her puzzles (and correspondence with puzzle editors), and with Andy's help, I was able to identify 49 more puzzles, previously listed in my records and on XWord Info as having been constructed by "Unknown," that were actually constructed by Louise!  This was truly a bonanza—thanks so much again, Andy, for your help in compiling the list of Louise's works, complete with their 1-Across and 1-Down entries and actual or approximate publication dates!  And thanks again, Todd, for putting me in touch with Andy!  My hope is that there will be other similar "finds" in the future, though perhaps none quite as major as this one!  To see all of Louise's New York Times puzzles on XWord Info, click here.

I hope to have more on Louise in a future post, but in the meantime, please enjoy the following, courtesy of her family.  The photo was taken during a period when Louise was actively constructing puzzles and originally appeared in The Bantam Great Masters Winning Crossword Puzzles, which was published in 1980.

Cruciverbalist Louise S. Earnest Celebrates her 100th Birthday,
September 16, 2015!


The Earnest Family

Louise published her first crossword puzzle in The New York Times on July 16, 1957.  More than 25 years and countless puzzles later, she still “enjoyed the thrill of putting in that final letter.”

Through the years, Louise worked with three editors of the New York Times puzzles:  Margaret Farrar, Will Weng, and Eugene T. Maleska.  Her favorite remains Margaret Farrar, whom she credits with encouraging her to continue constructing puzzles.  Margaret’s handwritten kind words were “all [she] needed to keep going.”  A note from Maleska in 1979 said, “Hereafter, I suggest you place the extra stamp inside the return envelope.  If you continue to send me such fine puzzles, you won’t need a 30 cent reply.”  Clearly Mrs. Farrar was not the only editor who appreciated Louise's puzzles. 

In addition to publishing in The New York Times, Louise was a regular contributor to crossword puzzle book series, including those published by Bantam House, Pocket Books, and Simon & Schuster and edited by Farrar, Weng, and Maleska.  In 1980, she was awarded one Fourth Place prize and two Fifth Place prizes in Bantam’s Great Masters Crossword Puzzle Hunt, edited by Will Shortz.  Her puzzles have appeared in more than 40 books, many of which contain several of her creations. 

Born in Dover, Pa., in 1915, Louise lived most of her life in the same small town.  She married William H. Earnest, a CPA, in 1941, and her family includes a daughter, Harriet Earnest, a CPA in Warwick, N.Y.; and a son, Andrew Earnest (Janet), a retired Chairman of the Department of Mathematics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.  Finding herself a housewife raising two children, puzzles became a mental sanctuary for Louise.  Her puzzle board (along with a large eraser!) was never far away when she was washing dishes or ironing shirts.  An inspiration would strike, and more blocks on the grid would be filled in.  Constructing the puzzles was the challenge; “writing the clues was easy.”

When asked what gave her the idea to create a crossword puzzle, Louise replied, “The puzzles of the day were so easy, I figured I could do better.”  Explaining her focus on word agility, Louise said, “With two CPAs  and a mathematician in the family, figures were being well taken care of, so I felt words should be given a chance—hence crossword constructing for me.”  Rest assured, family and friends knew better than to expect to win a game of Scrabble from Louise!

In a generation when few women attended college, Louise earned a B.A. in Romance Languages from George Washington University.  She is the recipient of an award from the Republic of France for excellence in French studies.  Louise thoroughly enjoyed her time in Washington, D.C., and took full advantage of all that the city had to offer.  Her first years of marriage found her in Philadelphia, but city life gave way to home town living back in Dover in order to raise her family. 

Louise’s passions include several other areas.  An accomplished painter in oils, her last one-woman show was held at the Lycian Center in Sugar Loaf, N.Y., in 2005 to celebrate her 90th birthday.  Louise began a life-long love affair with traditional jazz as a teenager.  She and Bill spent a lot of time listening to records from their collection of several thousand—many old 78s from the 20s and 30s—and traveled far and wide to search out good live jazz.  For more than 20 years she coordinated a coed “Great Books” discussion group.  Flea markets were always an adventure to seek out an antique doll to add to her collection.  Bill and Louise were also community activists, joining with other parents to ensure that Dover-area schools were accredited.

Her idea of fun?  A trip to New York.  “I really feel deprived if I don’t have several trips a year to check out the museums, shows, and galleries.”  Special travel through the years included a trip to France shared with her daughter to celebrate her 70th birthday, and trips to Sanibel Island, Florida, where she liked to “vacation whenever possible . . . for complete relaxation.”

A cherished puzzle memory was the invitation to attend a luncheon held at the Tower Suite of the Time & Life Building in 1974 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Margaret Farrar’s work as editor of crossword puzzle books for Simon & Schuster.  It was a wonderful opportunity to travel to New York and to meet the lovely person with whom she had corresponded for so many years.  A line from a personal note from Margaret is one of Louise’s favorites to quote:  “Thank you for all the delicious puzzles.”  

Louise now resides in Warwick, N.Y., with her daughter, Harriet.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Moving Forward" Metapuzzle Wrap-up

Still wondering how the "Moving Forward" metapuzzle worked?  Although quite a few people wrote to me saying they were stuck, only 11 solvers actually submitted an answer, so the puzzle was clearly much more of a stumper than I'd intended!  Well, whether you tried it or not, the time has come for an explanation.

Let's start with the note, which specified that the answer was a "two-word phrase especially appropriate now that the project is essentially over."  The note also contained a link to the XWord Info page listing all the entries commonly used in pre-Shortzian puzzles that have yet to appear in a Shortz-era grid.  As everyone who submitted an entry realized, this page was essential to solving the puzzle.  But the note also contained another hint, albeit a very subtle one.  Were any of you wondering why the third sentence was written in such a clunky way?  Why did it read "To learn more about the crosswordese entries featured in this puzzle, each of which has been used zero times in the Shortz era, go to," as opposed to something like "To learn more about the uniquely pre-Shortzian crosswordese entries featured in this puzzle, go to . . . "?  Well, more on that later!

The next step was to solve the puzzle.  Most solvers naturally gravitated toward the longer entries, and a handful of them noticed that all but the last one were hiding pieces of pre-Shortzian crosswordese from the XWord Info page.  Here's a picture of the solved grid with the pieces of pre-Shortzian crosswordese highlighted:

Now, notice what happens when you arrange the pieces of pre-Shortzian crosswordese by their order in the grid:


The first letters spell BAD CROSS . . . which was the most common incorrect answer!  Remember, the answer was supposed to be a two-word phrase especially appropriate now that the project is essentially over.  Although BAD CROSS is the right number of words and relates to the pre-Shortzian puzzles, it doesn't quite fit the description.  So what was the purpose of BAD CROSS?  Well, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a deliberate trap, but its overarching purpose was to be a hint for the next stage of solving.  The other major hint in the grid was POLISH, POLISH, POLISH—if BAD CROSS were indeed the answer, then why include POLISH, POLISH, POLISH rather than sticking with the original eight theme entries?  Another tip-off was that certain easier-to-fill areas of the grid were filled much more poorly than you might expect.  Take a look at the upper center, for instance, which contains both LLB and EELERS.

So, armed with BAD CROSS and the aforementioned observations, the next step was to notice that nine of the Across clues were unusually lengthy/awkward.  What did these nine clues have in common?  The word "zero," which was also forcibly worked into the third sentence of the note and which describes the number of times each piece of pre-Shortzian crosswordese on the XWord Info list has been used in the Shortz era.  I've listed the strained clues and their answers below:

Not zero-skilled ---> ABLE
Its slope is never zero ---> RAMP
Make display a time other than zero, as a parking meter ---> FEED
Reduce to zero health in a video game, say ---> SLAY
Situation with zero ways out ---> BIND
Salon treatment invented at least 3,200 years before zero, informally ---> MANI
Person making zero sense ---> LOON
Shows zero originality ---> APES
Prefix associated with elevations greater than zero ---> ACRO

Well, you might be wondering, what's so special about these nine entries?  All of them have been used many times over in the Shortz era.  If you look more closely, though, you'll notice that each of these entries is also one letter different from a piece of pre-Shortzian crosswordese on the list.  What happens when you "recreate" each piece of pre-Shortzian crosswordese?  First off, you'd notice that a second piece of pre-Shortzian crosswordese from the list is formed each time a substitution is done correctly.  Thus, changing ABLE to ATLE also changes BAA to TAA, etc.  Here's what the grid looks like before and after the pre-Shortzian crosswordese substitutions:

When the letters at each bad cross are read in order, they spell TIMES PAST, which is the correct answer to the puzzle:  The project, which converted all the available Times puzzles published before Will Shortz became editor into a digital, fully analyzable format, is basically a thing of the past at this point.

It took a long time for the first correct solution to arrive in my inbox—I was seriously worried I had made the puzzle too hard and would have to give a hint!  So I was thrilled to receive not just one but two correct submissions at exactly the same time (10:59 a.m.) on Friday, August 28!  More followed—here's a list of everyone who sent in the correct solution, along with the dates and times (Pacific time) of their submissions:

1.  (Tie) Emma Astroth, Friday, August 28 10:59 a.m.; Jay Winter, Friday, August 28 10:59 a.m.
2.  Louis Lana, Friday, August 28 4:55 p.m.
3.  Kyle Dolan, Saturday, August 29 4:43 a.m.
4.  Jeffrey Harris, Sunday, August 30, 4:17 p.m.
5.  Nicholas Harvey, Sunday, August 30, 6:18 p.m.

I used a random number generator to pick a winner—Jeffrey Harris, who coincidentally also won the previous metapuzzle contest (Metaleska)!!!  Congratulations to Jeffrey, who will receive a $50 iTunes card, and to everyone else who submitted the correct solution!

Thanks, too, to all the solvers who entered or attempted to enter the contest, and special thanks to Jim Horne and Jeff Chen for hosting the puzzle on XWord Info!

Before I wrap up this wrap-up, though, I'd like give a special shoutout to my favorite incorrect answer, which was submitted by Ralph Bunker.  After noticing the hidden pre-Shortzian crosswordese in the long entries, Ralph zeroed in on the entry CANO, which he discovered was Latin for "I sing."  Ralph also noticed that "I sing" is a homophone of "icing," which he noted could describe the finishing touches on the project.  Ralph's final answer, therefore, was "I sing."  Kudos to him for coming up with a very clever answer I'd never even anticipated!

Finally, here are a couple more interesting coincidences and observations that relate to "Moving Forward."  First of all, Matt Gaffney happened to publish a brilliant metapuzzle whose gimmick also involved changing single letters of grid entries to make new thematic ones last week, which I have a feeling may have subconsciously helped a number of the correct solvers!  So I'd like to give a shout-out to Matt for reading my mind . . . and for being the true master of metapuzzles!  Second, as Barry Haldiman noted, the entry CANO isn't as undesirable as the other pieces of pre-Shortzian crosswordese now that former Yankee Robinson CANO has become famous.  Finally, Jim Horne e-mailed me a couple days ago noting that a piece of pre-Shortzian crosswordese on the list—ARO (clued modernly as "Michael Sheen's character in 'Twilight'")—had been reused in the Sunday, August 30, 2015, New York Times puzzle.  After panicking for a few minutes, I was relieved to see that I hadn't used ARO in my meta!  This just goes to show that even the ugliest-looking bits of pre-Shortzian crosswordese can sometimes be salvaged, so we shouldn't necessarily assume that all the uniquely pre-Shortzian entries are bad!