[Puzzleblogger Kevan Choset, August 16, 2005 at 12:40pm] Trackbacks
On Puzzles and "Cheating":

When I started constructing crosswords for the Times, friends began to ask me what constitutes "cheating" when you're solving a crossword puzzle. I'm not sure why making the puzzles (or even being a regular solver of them) renders me an expert, but I've tried to supply answers over the years, and I've gotten to the point where I have a usual response that I'm comfortable with.

First and foremost, I think the answer is up to everyone as an individual. Crosswords (and other puzzles, or at least ones where there isn't money, pride, etc. at stake), are a competition between you and yourself. While it's trite, it's true: If you "cheat," you're only cheating yourself. That said, I've set a couple of guidelines for myself, and those I've told them to tend to agree with them.

I'm totally happy using the people around me as a resource. It makes the puzzles more social, and, while it's a help, it doesn't trivialize the enterprise. Also, there's a separate, and enjoyable, skill set involving knowing who will know what. I know that if there's a clue about the goalie on the 1973 New York Rangers, my father will know the answer, but he won't have a clue what "http" stands for.

I never Google. I feel like googling takes away the fun, and turns a mental exercise into a tedious task. Google will know the answer. Asking Google is basically the same as reading the answers the next day, something I also never do. That said, this wouldn't be a good law-oriented blog if every rule didn't have its exceptions. If I'm stuck on a clue like "'Catulli Carmina' composer" (From the Saturday, August 6, 2005 NY Times puzzle), then I really just don't care what the answer is. If I google it and find out the answer is "ORFF" (Carl Orff, that is), I'm in no way satisfied -- I'm not smarter, and I haven't learned anything interesting. But some clues obviously impart some interesting piece of information. Given the clue "Asian leader who had a Ph.D. from Princeton," (July 29, 2005 NY Times), while I don't know the answer, I know that the answer ("RHEE") will be interesting. Or other times, it's not an interesting fact, but a bit of word play that has me intrigued. If I have the clue "Bread box?" (also August 6) and have filled in the letters A_M, but can't figure out what the middle letter could possibly be, I'll check back the next day, because I know that I should know the answer, and I know I'll find it clever. (The answer, of course, is "ATM.")

I bring this all up because people have been leaving comments and emailing me about when it's acceptable to use Google on one of my VC puzzles. Lately, I've been trying to include a note saying not to use Google when I think it's inappropriate, but the Google/non-Google distinction is finer than that. With some puzzles, all the research in the world won't help you. You just have to rely on your ingenuity. Others, like this one, clearly require research. The point of that puzzle wasn't to test people's mental images of every nook and cranny of the borders between the 50 states. And then there are the puzzles that fall in between. In this one, if you simply googled the list I provided, you'd quickly find the answer. But I didn't expect anyone to know off-hand the order of ticker tape parades in Manhattan. I certainly didn't expect anyone to be able to identify whose parade was missing from the list. The thought process that I had in mind for solving it was something like: "1) These are mostly New York-related; 2) They are all people/groups who did worthy things in the last several years; 3) They're listed in the order in which they did these worthy things; 4) People who do worthy things in New York get parades; 5) Let me find a list of ticker tape parades and see if this matches up; 6) Not only does it match up, but the missing one -- the Discovery astronauts -- would be particularly appropriate today since the Discovery landed."

To put all of that in a nutshell, I think a good rule of thumb is that you should do whatever research doesn't make the puzzle trivial. If it's a "What do these things have in common"-type puzzle, then don't just google the list. If it's "Who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1975" (which I promise never to ask), don't go to the IMDb's list of Oscar winners. Etc.

Scott Scheule (mail) (www):
Orff rocks.
8.16.2005 1:42pm
Robert Woolley (mail):
I disagree about the levels of cheating. I absolutely exclude using other people. I see puzzle solving as a solitary endeavor, not a communal one. To me, asking a knowledgeable other is lazier than looking up an answer. The lowest level of cheating is looking up a single answer in a dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, etc. I agree that googling is the functional equivalent of looking at the answer--it means you failed to solve the puzzle, period. But it at least has the advantage that you're more likely to learn something along the way.

A month or two ago one of the clues was "dernier ---". Even after I had filled in CRI by knowing the other words, I had no idea what it meant. Google taught me a new and modestly useful phrase, while the answer key would have left a void in my brain.

And Orff is at least as interesting as Rhee.
8.16.2005 3:31pm
I use a "fun" standard. Years ago I bought my mom the computer version of Scrabble (published by Hasbro.) In this you play against the computer. And there is a "hint" button which shows you all of the possible ways that you can use your letters on the board, sorted in order of points. The hint button proved irresistable, and so the "game" degenerated into watching the computer play against itself. [yawn] boring! [yawn]

Now that I'm in the business of making video games, I realize that the Scrabble developers violated the only game rule that really matters -- is it fun?

cathy :-)
8.16.2005 3:39pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Maybe Google is useful for your VC puzzles, but I would think that it is less so for many crossword puzzles. Many such questions seem to be more trick than anything. In other words, a question is asked that has a normal type meaning, but the words can be taken as meaning something else. And only those who see the alternate meaning of the question, i.e. the trick, are really able to solve the puzzle.

My father is an avid crossword puzzler. He draws a line between asking us (his sons) and using Google, etc.
8.16.2005 4:31pm
"...the letters A_M, but can't figure out what the middle letter could possibly be... (The answer, of course, is "ATM.")"

Uh, wouldn't the answer be one of 26 varieties? And if you go in order, only 20 before you hit the correct answer?
8.16.2005 9:39pm
Mark Onyschuk (mail):
I love puzzles and puzzle over them more than I should. But the question about using Google, I think, raises some more questions about knowledge and our estimation of knowledgeable people.

People "in the know" have relied for centuries on their own personal access to a wide variety of information - something that exceptional people could muster from time to time to solve exceptional problems. It's a skill that many don't have - many are specialists in very narrow fields; not necessarily academic ones but rather very practical ones.

A tool like Google, however, lets people who aren't "classically" trained in the ideas of an age to be able to come to the same conclusions as experts might - solely based on their ability to synthesize information.

The question I see in this is the question of what knowledge is? Is it a ready access to a set of facts that grow stale the moment they're taught, or is it the ingenuity to tap the latest sources - like Google for instance - and extrapolate from that.

Thanks much for the question,
LOL - I'm thinking in lots of directions as a result :)
8.17.2005 12:06am
hikaru_genji (mail) (www):
"If I google it and find out the answer is 'ORFF' (Carl Orff, that is), I'm in no way satisfied -- I'm not smarter, and I haven't learned anything interesting."

If you didn't google it and wrote down the correct answer, you are not a lick smarter and have not learned anything, either.

Simply, crossword puzzles are not designed to increase one's intelligence or to educate. They are (1) Challenging (and thus Fun) (2) Tests of trivial knowledge.

However, crossword puzzles Can make one smarter if people do the exact opposite of what you do, which is to look at the answer sheet, and to look to google (or other knowledge references) for the answers to the questions one cannot answer.

If people did the exact opposite of what you do, they might even be able to create better crossword puzzles you could not answer. Maybe then, you might be out of job, and we wouldn't want that, would we.
8.17.2005 8:03pm