My Date with the NPR Puzzle

by Richard R. Renner

I knew I was obsessed when I started getting up early on Sunday mornings. It's been about five years now. Every Sunday morning National Public Radio (NPR) airs a puzzle segment as part of its Weekend Edition show. "Puzzlemaster" Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor leads the segment.

Each Sunday, Will reads the listener challenge from the previous week and gives the answer. Then NPR host Liane Hansen introduces one of the hundreds of listeners who sent in a correct answer. They chat briefly, and Will gives the listener a set of word puzzles to solve on the air.

What could be more fun than comparing my abilities with the best that NPR can find? I could only dream that someday an NPR staffer would pull my name from the pile of answers. Or, better yet, my name would be the only one with the correct answer! Maybe I should get my testosterone checked.

After the listener solves the series of linguistic challenges, Will gives everyone a qualifying puzzle for the following week. Liane announces the address (and electronic mail address) for listeners to send their answers. Microseconds later, I am plotting a way to solve the puzzle. If the answer did not come to me by the time I reached my computer keyboard, I would try to construct a computer program that would snag the answer, or at least narrow the choices. As soon as I could, I would log onto Peacenet and send my answer whirling over phone lines to NPR's anxiously awaiting editor. If I did not have the answer by 10:00 a.m., I would have a puzzle mantra to focus all my thoughts during an hour-long unprogrammed Quaker meeting.

Each week, I also dutifully wrote a summary of the puzzle. Through the Internet, I posted my summary in the newsgroup. Naturally the weekly postings on their own forum would catch NPR's attention. No such luck.

My day finally came. On June 11, 1995, Will announced that listeners would have two weeks to solve the qualifying puzzle. Here is how I summarized the puzzle on the Internet:

I added the following note to the puzzle summary, after checking the dictionary for any other word that might sound like palmistry:

Surely Will would catch this error next week.

The answer to this puzzle did not jump into my head. At the same time, the possibilities for computer-aided investigations persistently flashed across my mind. Quaker meeting was no help. Who could listen to their Inner Light with so many preoccupations? I was probably no help to the Quaker meeting either.

By three in the afternoon, I was at the keyboard writing lines of code for a computer program. My first program started with a list I had previously prepared of all English words with ten letters or more. This list had 12,718 words. My program looked for words that had no repeating letters. This narrowed the list to 2,782 words. Easy! In the process, I found that the longest word with no repeating letters is "dermatoglyphics." Like palmistry, its meaning relates to reading information from a person's skin. I was sure Will had picked palmistry to suggest this likely answer.

The next successful program I wrote compared dermatoglyphics with every word in the dictionary. The longest word I could find that did not share any letters with dermatoglyphics was bunk. Junk, funk, and knub also work (if only knub was a real word).

It was time to write a grander program to go for the gold. I wanted to write a program that compared my list of 2,782 words with other lists I had containing words of certain lengths. Fortuitously, I accidentally had the program check the 2,782 words against themselves. An answer popped out: gunpowdery and blacksmith. I ran another program to look for any possible combination with a shorter and longer word. By nine o'clock Sunday evening, I was convinced that my answer was the best I could submit.

As I wrote my answer, I realized a terrible irony. I would not be home the weekend when NPR selected the winner. My family and I had plans to travel to Tequesta, Florida, to see my grandfather. We hadn't seen him in five years, and he no longer traveled north. I wanted to see him again. Still, I would not let all this puzzle-solving effort be in vain. So, my submission included my grandfather's telephone number.

A week passed. The Sunday broadcast did not mention any error in the weekly listener challenge. Had I misunderstood the puzzle? Don't palmistry and behind repeat the letter i? Was Will looking for some quality in the words that completely evaded me?

On Thursday, June 22, when my family arrived at the airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, they must have had this sinking feeling in their stomachs when I managed to get to the car rental counter first. Sure enough, when the clerk found our reservation, she whipped out the contract and told me where to sign. She did not tell me to read the contract, but I did anyway. "How can I sign this contract when it says that I have inspected the car already?" I asked. A few minutes later, she was threatening to call the sheriff to have me removed. We didn't have a rental car yet. If only my wife had realized the magic words that would get me to sign anything: "Honey, Will Shortz is calling your grandfather's apartment looking for you."

Off the airport grounds, the manager finally arranged for me to inspect the car before I signed the contract. We arrived in Tequesta about 4:00 p.m. Just as my grandfather was telling me about some phone message for me, the phone rang. It was Devar Ardalan, a Production Assistant for National Public Radio. "Richard, I was calling to see if you would like to be a contestant on the air with Will Shortz and Liane Hansen." Would I?! "Yes, of course, this is the day I have been waiting for." Ominously, Devar had to ask another question. "I need to know if you used a computer to get the answer," she continued. "Yes, I did," I replied with a voice about ten octaves lower than my last answer.

It turns out that of the four entrants who submitted the correct answer, all four of us had used computers. Since I had been unavailable, Devar knew this fact only after she talked with me. She explained that if I hadn't used a computer, I would have been the winner. As I had, she didn't know if I was the winner or if she had to select the winner at random. Devar said she was not the normal producer of the puzzle segment. The real whiz, Assistant Producer Fred Wasser, was on vacation. Devar had to check on how to select the winner, and she agreed to call me back either way.

A few minutes later, another call. I still hadn't finished properly greeting for my grandfather and his friend, Jean. Devar announced that I won the random selection. I was going to be on the air! She wanted to interview me to see if there was anything interesting about my life that Liane Hansen might mention on the air. My chest puffed up. I am a lawyer who just spent eight years working for the local legal aid office. My partner and I quit our legal aid jobs just two months ago to open our new law practice in Dover, Ohio. Dover shares sidewalks with New Philadelphia, where I live. We're the first interracial firm ever in the county (that's not saying much if there has only been one African-American lawyer). I couldn't tell if Devar found any of this interesting. She asked why I was in Florida and I told her about my grandfather. She asked where Tequesta was, and I explained that it was a suburb of Jupiter — as if two suburbs of West Palm Beach could be suburbs of each other.

Devar moved on to scheduling the puzzle segment. "Are you free tomorrow at noon?" she wondered. "I'm free anytime you say." "Oh, Devar, there is one more thing I should mention," the words came out of my mouth as if it was premeditated. "I don't want an NPR lapel pin."

"My I ask why?"

"I heard Scott Simon mention once that the NPR pins are imported," I was finishing what I started as I sensed the risk of losing everything for which I had worked. "I try to use products that are made in countries with better labor conditions than those in most Asian countries. I don't want to receive anything of value that was produced by workers who cannot bargain for fair conditions and wages. So, when Liane offers me the NPR lapel pin, I want to refuse it."

A brief pause followed.

"Can you hold on for a minute?" Devar asked, not really waiting for an answer.

It was not a minute. I was timing it. It was almost ten minutes. I had to go to the bathroom.

She finally came back on the line. "Well, Richard, the puzzle segment is a light segment. It is for entertainment. We cover more serious issues during the rest of the show. I can ask Liane not to offer you a pin, but we don't want to make an issue of it on the air."

I accepted immediately.

The next morning, my wife and daughter and I went to the beach. We couldn't go swimming because of sea lice (jelly fish larva). It was just that much easier to get back in plenty of time for my noon appointment with destiny. "Just think of all the great advertising you'll get for the new law office," my wife points out. Too bad I can't tell America about the sacrifice I am making for labor rights in Asia.

When we returned, Grandpa had a message that someone called. They said they would call back about 1:30. The tension mounted.

What better way to prepare than to do a crossword puzzle? I got stuck on some word starting with b. What if I get stuck on the air with millions, or at least hundreds, of people listening?

My daughter wants to be on the phone, too. She promises she won't make a sound. She loves to have any contact she can with famous people, and Liane Hansen suddenly qualified (sorry, Will).

Grandpa left the living room to take a nap. The call finally came. Devar asked me to wait while an engineer worked on the connections. Then, Liane asked me to describe the room I was in (the engineer needed to adjust the sound level). Before I knew it, we were on the air. Well, actually on the tape.

Liane began with a report of US Magazine's article about Batman Forever. Instead of saying "US" as one word, she said the initials u-s. One of the advantages of advance taping is that you get to edit out your mistakes. Liane asked if we could start again, and the question was obviously rhetorical.

Take two. Liane noted that Will Shortz was included in US Magazine's list of secrets about Batman Forever. He wrote the Riddler's riddles. After the script was written, the writers needed four puzzles with a "certain something" in them. US Magazine made one mistake. They said even Will didn't know the answers to the riddles. "That's preposterous!" Will shouted (at least as close as Will ever gets to a shout on the air). "You start with the answer and work backwards," Liane observes. "Of course."

With this lead-in about mistakes, Liane asked Will for the slight mistake he wanted to correct. Palmistry and behind share the letter i. The example should have been palmistry and bounce, or some other words that have no letters in common. Will acknowledged a few 19-letter answers: playwrights and uncombed; blameworthy and duckpins; downshift and lumberjack; bylaws and a familiar 13-letter word starting with mother. Only one answer had 20 letters, gunpowdery and blacksmith.

Liane noted that some very clever listeners created "simple little computer programs." Simple?! Little?! My three programs had a total of 231 lines of code, including 15 nested loops, multiple file handling, subroutines, and even one line with an annotation to explain what it did. Liane hadn't even seen the programs I wrote. Despite my indignation, I said nothing. With a phone call, Liane could be taping any of the three other puzzle solvers. In fact, Liane names them: Mike Morton in Hawaii, Steve Riseman in Minnesota, Phil Johnson in California.

Liane went on to say that I was from Dover, Ohio. (Actually, I live in New Philadelphia, Ohio. I guess you are from the place where you work.) She continued with the interesting item she gleaned from Devar's interview the day before. I was visiting my 88-year-old grandfather in Tequesta, Florida, which is a suburb of Jupiter, Florida. "And," she asked, with a leading question, "I understand this is a dream come true for you?" "It sure is," I replied, "I've been waiting years to finally get a correct solution." Total hyperbole. "And you're also a big Will Shortz fan?" Another leading question. "Of course." Devar must have tipped off Liane to my ability to drive my own agenda.

"Well, we won't keep you waiting any longer." I think Liane was talking to the listening public here. "Are you ready to play?" "Yes." How could I possibly know if I was ready or not? I still had no idea what type of puzzle Will would use on me.

Will announces the challenge. He will give clues for two words, the first for a word with short e sound and the second for a word with a long e sound. For example, if Will said, "means of payment and a part of the face," the answer would be check and cheek. How many words can there be like this?

"Number 1. A lower limb of the body and association." "Leg and league," I say. I also get the next two: "an estimate and birds," and "shouted and a street sign." (Guess and geese; yelled and yield.)

Will continues, "summon by gesture and a lighthouse light." "Oh, goodness, my brain just went on vacation," was not the correct answer. I had realized that I could not practice for the puzzle itself, but I could rehearse something cute to say when I was stumped. Liane bails me out. "Beckon and beacon." Maybe one of these was the b word that blocked me on that crossword puzzle.

"Ironed and a church official," Will challenges. I know the church official. "Deacon," I say, obviously obsessed with the question I had just missed. I start to think about how the word iron might be used in a completely different context. Would molten iron in a foundry be poured from a deckon? Will tries to steer me to think about officials in the Catholic church. Finally I blurt out, "I'm no help here." (This is where that advance rehearsal comes in handy.) "Pressed and priest," Liane suggests. "Of course!"

The adrenaline is flowing now. "A small fruit and slightly drunk." Will offers some hints: "Two syllables, five letters; the small fruit could be black, it could be red, it could be straw . . ." "Berry and beery."

"A cook and a bundle of papers." "Chef and sheaf."

"An outcast and one who jumps." "Leper and leaper."

"Like beans or crabs and a means of protection." Whenever something is "like" two things that have nothing in common, you know it's tough. Will helps me out with the hint that the protection is for a knight. They were around before latex was invented. "Shelled and shield."

"A spice on the dinner table and a nosy person." "Pepper and peeper."

"And your last one, a fish and one of the five senses." "Herring and hearing."

Liane always finds something nice to say about each contestant. So she highlights my final spurt to the finish line. She announced that as prizes, I would receive the Deluxe Travel Edition of Scrabble and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, and the Collegiate Thesaurus. I could have my choice of the hardcover or CD-ROM versions. She asks what public radio station I listen to in Dover, Ohio, and I answer with both WKSU and WOUC. Later, I remembered that I don't have a radio in my office yet, so I don't really listen to either one in Dover!

Liane recapped my most salient feature — that I was visiting my 88-year-old grandfather in Florida — and my five minutes of fame were over. No mention of the pin made in Asia. No mention of my budding civil rights law practice.

I had failed to execute one of the necessary skills of the spin-doctors. If I wanted the media to say a certain something about me, I had to say that certain something and nothing more. I had to pick one issue and stick to it. By blabbing on, I let the media pick the issue.

The engineer kindly allowed me to stay on the line to hear the puzzle for next week. I was the only person outside NPR that would have an extra two days to work on the puzzle. But it was no use. Take the word congenital and add the letter k to spell the name of a famous person. Hint: it's the person's full name.

Devar cut in while Liane announced how to submit entries. She told me it would take a couple of weeks to get my prizes. I asked if she could send me a copy of the tape. She said that would take a couple of weeks, too. As soon as she hung up, I realized that she never asked me if I wanted the hardcover or CD-ROM version of the dictionary and thesaurus. Fred Wasser, NPR's Assistant Producer, called me five weeks later to ask the obvious. I wanted the CD-ROM version. It arrived four weeks after that, but what's the point. What are the odds that they will pick me again? Even if they did, I would confess that I used a computer!

My daughter fulfilled her promise to stay quiet on the other extension. She was so excited that she actually got to listen in on a phone call with a famous person. My grandfather never listened to NPR, but he did have a radio we could use Sunday morning. His hearing is impaired, so he didn't try to listen with us. Just as well. How many people need to hear me try to make a word out of deckon? We listened, and we never heard the word deckon. The silent engineer had edited out my wrong guess. Censorship can cut both ways. It's not so bad when your own mistakes are suppressed.

I endured another two days in Florida without access to the Internet. My e-mail was jammed with three whole messages. Strangers wanted to know if the Richard Renner from Dover, Ohio, was the same as me, the Richard Renner from New Philadelphia. One of them, Dean G. Huffman, from southern Illinois, even filled in for me by uploading a summary of the segment. Thanks, Dean.

I never solved the anagram of congenital and k. I had to wait nine days to hear the answer, Nat King Cole.

Four weeks later, my Deluxe Travel Edition of Scrabble arrived. I rushed home so my wife and I could play a game. Earlier in the year, she had asked for Scrabble as her birthday present. I was amazed. "Surely," I said, "you would rather play a game in which you have some chance of winning occasionally." On our first game with the Deluxe Travel Edition, she scored four seven-letter words. She royally creamed me.

© 1995 Richard R. Renner. All rights reserved.

, 95/12/29