202. Inside Mad

October 29, 2013

Available today: Inside MAD, a behind-the-scenes look at MAD magazine, $29.95 cheap $19.97 cheaper.

MAD’s “Usual Gang of Idiots” chimes in, as do celebrities and MAD editor John Ficarra, who has this to say in his foreword: “Inside MAD offers a rare look into the twisted minds of the writers and artists who have produced the magazine for the past 61 years. I would like to say it’s illuminating and insightful, but unfortunately I can’t — I’ve read it.”

176. Cycling Necklace

December 2, 2012

My sole foray into jewelry design (for my daughter). Vintage bicycle gear levers and thumb screws; hex coupling nut and zinc-plated chain from The Home Depot.

173. Eno

November 13, 2012

I’ve been listening to Brian Eno music this afternoon, and it’s starting to make me drowszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

171. Noogiefest

November 5, 2012

Three days prior to Hurricane Sandy, the Ink Well Foundation organized a gaggle (or is it a doodle?) of cartoonists that descended upon Gilda’s Club in Manhattan for their annual “Noogiefest” Halloween bash. A fun time was had by all as we drew witches, superheroes, walking eyeballs, and other assorted Halloween creatures with a great group of kids and their parents.

Here are some photos from the event … including one of me modeling my vampire teeth for a Power Ranger, a princess, and an escapee from the musical Cats (they weren’t sure what to think of my teeth at first, but then insisted I keep them in).

Inkwell logo ® The Ink Well Foundation

154: 2012 ACPT Vignettes, part 1

March 19, 2012

The Winner
What can you say. Dan Feyer is amazing. Congratulations on another impressive win. And a big tip of the hat to Tyler and Anne for their great performances … not to mention (but I am going to mention) David, Al, Francis, Howard, Joon, Stella, Ellen and, well, you gotta stop somewhere. (Don Christensen photo)

Changing of the Guard
There was a changing-of-the-quard mini-theme to this year’s event: no Maura Jacobson puzzle for the first time ever, no Merl and Neal calling the finals, and no Trip Payne as a competitor. In addition, the dynamic Doug Heller, who served as head judge and webmaster for many, many years, played more of a sideline role this year.

Their full or partial absence made me appreciate them all the more.

Anne Erdmann
Anne proved once again the class and integrity of the top solvers in the ACPT. None of them wants to be given anything they haven’t earned on paper.

I happened to be in the tournament bunker with Helene Hovanec on Sunday morning when Anne Erdmann poked her head in the door. She had misgivings about her mistake on puzzle #1 being overturned the day before and insisted that it should be re-reviewed. She stated she would gladly abide by whatever was decided, but she wanted there to be no doubt that it was the right call.

The online scan doesn’t show it clearly, but looking at the actual paper, there’s no way to ignore that there’s an ascender coming down and ending in a small circle-shape. The vertical line is clearly and fairly strongly written (not just a drag of the pencil), resulting in something that looks pretty close to the lowercase “b” just below it. The ruling was regrettable but clear: It wasn’t an “o.”

As it turned out, Anne solved her way back from 4th to make the final three on stage. Good things do sometimes happen to good people.

Dr. Fill
The good Dr. added a lot of interest to this year’s tournament and generated more pre-tourney publicity than we’ve ever seen, including a front page article in The New York Times.

I had mixed feelings about Matt Ginsberg’s cyber-creation and its presence as an unofficial competitor. What Matt has accomplished is really remarkable, downright awesome. In fact, I was inspired enough that I made an unsolicited donation of a Dr. Fill logo to the cause back in May.

On the other hand, I was tapped as the constructor of puzzle #2, so Dr. Fill was the competition. Did I want to beat Dr. Fill? Yes. Some wrong answers would be satisfying. I mean, who doesn’t like to beat a computer.

But I didn’t write a puzzle to try and beat Dr. Fill.

That thought wasn’t even on the radar. And I had no instruction from Will Shortz to do so. The truth is, there was zero discussion between us about what my theme or approach would be, other than the level of difficulty to aim for. The first he knew of my puzzle was when the finished version arrived in his mailbox about three weeks before the tournament.

My only consideration was trying to make an original and interesting puzzle, hopefully one that solvers would appreciate. The humans are what the tournament is about; they’re paying the big bucks to be there, and they want the best entertainment they can get. Computers are great, but they aren’t going to come up and thank you if you write a good puzzle (you at least have a shot with humans). As Matt has repeatedly said, Dr. Fill doesn’t even know what it’s doing.

After the puzzle was constructed, I did give some thought to how Dr. Fill might fare with it. Here’s part of an email I sent to Will Shortz the day after I sent him the puzzle: “My #2 theme is one that could likely flummox Dr. Fill, although that wasn’t something I set out to do. Real solvers were the focus!”

Will’s response: “As long as your primary goal is entertaining solvers, not flummoxing Dr. Fill, that’s fine.”

More to Come?
I might file a few more notes later but, if nothing else, I will make sure to include a follow-up about a paper that many of you signed at the tournament.

In the meantime, thanks to all who came up and said hello or gave me a thumbs up for my puzzle #2 (even those who waved a fist at me). It’s greatly appreciated. Also thanks to those who purchased books at my table. My nieces’ cut of the take (rounded up to reward them for their hard work) netted them a couple hundred dollars toward their cause to fight Crohn’s disease.

Go to: Vignettes, part 2

153. ACPT Table

March 12, 2012

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament takes place this weekend, March 16-18, in Brooklyn, NY, and it promises to be another great one. Here’s a recent interview with Will Shortz (scroll down to the Shortz pic) on uber-constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley’s site.

Aside from my judging duties, I’ll have a table in the puzzle marketplace, with 20% of every sale going to support my two high-school-age nieces’ upcoming walk to fight Crohn’s disease. The two of them will be (wo)manning the table themselves.

The wares for sale will include approximately 25 different puzzle-book titles of mine (for kids and adults both) and a brand-new crossword ambigram iron-on (pictured above; it reads the same upside down) with which you can make your own ambigram t-shirt. A sheet of iron-ons is $5 and books are either $5 or $10. I hope you’ll stop by and, if nothing else, give them a smile and a thumbs up.

art © 2012 Patrick Merrell

149. Merrell Books

November 12, 2011

Out Now:
A holiday section, plus TV detectives, celebrity chefs, movie cars, chick flicks, Bradley, Cee Lo and Soffffia.

240 pages and 6 types of puzzles, with crossword champ Dan Feyer pitching in.

Coming in 2012 (for kids):
• Bob the plunger and Rollo the toilet paper roll host a book packed with unusual trivia, gross recipes and over 80 pages of fun and funny puzzles. Color illustrations throughout.

CHICKEN GAMES & PUZZLES • 144 pages with illustrations throughout. Co-written by Helene Hovanec.

HAUNTED HALLOWEEN MAZES: A Maze Adventure • For beginning solvers. Zombie mice, walking eyeballs and a floor-eating furball.

HAPPY HOLIDAY MAZES: A Maze Adventure • For beginning solvers. When Santa’s away, the elves will play.

PUZZLED PENGUINS • For beginning solvers, starring Herbert and Martha Penguin. Scholastic book club reprint, early 2012.

147. Pleasantville Tourney Recap

October 22, 2011

Will Shortz’s annual fund-raising crossword tournament is history. A sizable flock of crossword fanciers ran a gantlet (or gauntlet, if you prefer) of flying Ping-Pong balls at Mr. Shortz’s newly christened hall of the white orb, with all appearing to have found refuge in a roomy, well-lit solving room specially outfitted for the night. A wall kept the fervent paddle-wielders at bay, but the threat was ever-present via soundproof windows. An imported Chinese table tennis table full of beverages and baked goods helped calm a few frayed nerves.

My contribution for the night was unplugging one of the three coffeemakers that had overloaded the wall outlets and disabled the official display clock for the first round. I then skirted the mayhem in the outer table tennis area, located the circuit breakers and restored power. Red, gleaming numbers greeted the solvers for the remainder of the night.

Solving ensued, with some familiar faces blazing through the NYT puzzles that will appear next Monday through Wednesday. Bob Mackey, Jeffrey Schwartz and Elaine Lippman posted the fastest qualifying times in 3:05, 3:05 and ~4:30 respectively. Another perennial ringer, Ken Stern, ended up just out of the running.

Solving on the oversized boards for the finals, Bob Mackey took top honors on next Thursday’s puzzle, with Mr. Schwartz nosing out Ms. Lippman by an eye wink.

A good smattering of the puzzle-sated faithful then found their way to Will Shortz’s house nearby. Awaiting them was a generous bounty of sodas, beer and wine to wash down inviting bowls of Doritos, Ruffles, carrots and white celery. Banter filled the house with merriment. Liniment was available for any who suffered Ping-Pong ball bruises.

CLICK HERE for a great video of the event.

The windows behind which we cowered are at the top right.

145. Pleasantville Crossword Tournament

October 14, 2011

The 15th Annual Westchester Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be held Friday, October 21, starting at 7:30. The venue has moved a few blocks from the Episcopal church to Will Shortz’s new Ping-Pong palace.

More info     • Directions

144. JeOpardy! cONtestant

October 12, 2011

Joon Pahk has been moonlighting on Jeopardy! this week and last. In the past several years he’s also made some appearances on the NYT crossword blog Wordplay, including an interview and a guest-solving stint. Links to those features, as well as to videos of his Jeopardy! performances (put together by Nancy Shack), can all be found on this Wordplay page.

And you can play Joon’s “Guess my word!” game by clicking HERE.

140. Tour de France Coverage

July 2, 2011

I’ll be filing daily reports chronicling the progress of Spaniard Sammy Sánchez and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal in this year’s Tour de France. The posts can be found on THIS NEW BLOG, starting with the first stage on Saturday, July 2, and running through to the finish in Paris on the 24th.

139. patrickmerrell.com

June 15, 2011

My official website can now be found at www.patrickmerrell.com. For years its home has been http://www.patrick.merrell.org, and you can still go there, but it’s just gonna tell you to go to patrickmerrell.com, so save yourself a trip.

133. Wordplay Moments

March 23, 2011

Several people at this past weekend’s tournament asked me where they could find the “A Day with Will Shortz” series I wrote last year for Wordplay, the New York Times crossword blog. A compilation of the six installments: CLICK HERE

Other Wordplay highlights: CLICK HERE

The lowlights from my Wordplay stint were too numerous to compile.

132. 2011 ACPT Vignettes

March 21, 2011

Dan Feyer, this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion, isn’t just a whiz at crosswords. It seems just about any type of puzzle yields to his will. On Friday night, he was one of the top finishers in the U.S. vs. U.K. cryptic puzzle contest. On Saturday night, I joined up with him on a four-person team in the “ACPTzing Race,” and he proved his dexterity at the wide assortment of puzzles we were assaulted with (compliments of Greg Pliska and John Chaneski’s devious minds). Alas, despite that advantage, we lagged far behind the winning team. [Update: That winning team included Tyler Hinman, a puzzler you may have heard of.]

A note to those looking to take Dan down in a puzzle contest. If you can find a way to mix in a sudoku puzzle, he’s a mere mortal at those.

Not too much to report from behind the scenes in the judging room. A lot of that is thanks to Matt Ginsberg’s scanning technology, which for the second year has spared us the task of manually counting the wrong letters and words in each grid, a job that numbed our brains in the past. Because of that, Matt is very popular with the judges, although we don’t see a lot of him since he spends countless hours hunkered down in the scoring bunker of the Marriott, tending to the many issues that arise. Two others who work hours on end are Doug Heller, the head judge and webmaster, and Nancy Parsons.

Speaking of Matt Ginsberg, at our Friday night judges’ dinner at Eamonn’s, a nearby Irish pub and restaurant, we got a look at the progress he’s made with his crossword-solving program “Dr. Fill.” It wasn’t quite ready for competing in this year’s tournament, but I heard it finished puzzle No. 1 in well under three minutes with no mistakes, a remarkable feat. A recent trial using last year’s puzzles would have put it in 272nd place for the 2010 tournament.

The great Roz Chast was a delight as this year’s special guest, giving a clever speech on Sunday before handing out the trophies. She’s just as funny in person as she is on the page and even looks a bit like one of the characters she would draw … although not as sketchy, and with all of her coloring well within the lines (she’s also a better dresser). In a demonstration of the high regard in which the tournament holds her, she was one of only a few people (along with Will Shortz and the tournament director Helene Hovanec) to warrant a full-color tournament I.D. badge (those printed cards we wear around our necks all weekend). I got the honor of presenting it to her, but only because I happened to notice it forlornly lying on a table in the hallway. I’m sure it’s already proudly hanging on her studio wall.

The revelations of the Sunday morning talent show for me were Tommy Lee Cook, a blues guitarist and singer from Ft. Myers, Florida, and the dancing, singing, and ukelele-strumming talents of Francis Heaney (who knew!) as he accompanied Lorinne Lampert as an unannounced second banana. All of the other performers, many of whom we’ve enjoyed in the past, were great, but those two were surprising and welcome additions.

Oh, and let’s not forget the constructor David Kwong, who’s also a darn good magician. At the cheese and wine (and celery, beer and vegetable chip) reception after his performance on Friday night, he demonstrated a few cards tricks to Ellen Ripstein and me. I was watching his hands like a hawk and was completely baffled, which is the real fun of watching a magician at work.

Of course, one of the great attractions of the tournament for me is soaking in the camaraderie of the weekend, seeing old friends and fellow constructors, and meeting many new people, including lots of Times solvers. There’s always a large chunk of newcomers each year, and a good smattering introduced themselves, but just as gratifying were the smiles exchanged in passing with many others in the ballroom, hallways, and lobby over the three days. Sure, the competition is the raison d’être, but it’s the friendliness and warmth of the weekend that really puts it over the top.

A huge thanks to Will Shortz for making that magic happen yet once again — I’m still feeling the glow a day later — and to Helene Hovanec who annually tames the many-headed organizational beast, seemingly with ease.

Should other thoughts come to mind later on, I’ll report back, but I think that should more than do it for now.

Other tournament blog reports can be found by clicking HERE (scroll down a bit on that page).

130. Spellet

October 22, 2010

Spellet is a game of strategy and action with 100 levels of difficulty. You can find out more about it here.

Three Barrels is a start-up game company formed by Patrick Berry (game design), Patrick Merrell (graphics) and Douglas Merrell (software).


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