Computer Generated Crossword Puzzles

There are two free daily newspapers in Boston. The Boston Metro and the Boston Now. Both run crossword puzzles. The Now runs a puzzle edited by Stanley Newman. The Metro’s puzzle is unattributed. When my friend Seth Schoen was in town for several days, he did several crossword puzzles in the Metro. He pointed out to me that a clue in the crossword was repeated on two consecutive days. The crosswords in the Metro, he concluded, were computer generated.

I picked up the Metro each day for several weeks and, sure enough, there was a large amount of overlap in answers. “ALSO” and NIL” were answers three times in two weeks. More suggestive, however, were the clues. In all three instances of each repeated answer, the clues were the same. The clue for “ALSO” was always, “Part of a.k.a.,” while the clue for “NIL” was “Zilch.” Capitalization and punctuation, even for the uncapitalized “a.k.a.”, was consistent. Despite the fact that there was some variation in clues, I found some answers with different clues on different days. The high degree of consistency was undeniable.

Unassisted by a computer, no human editor would use the same clue for puzzles two days in a row. Frequent reuse of clues makes puzzles too easy for regular players and slight variation in clues is easy for a human puzzle editor to do. But even if the puzzles had been written in a different order than they were run in the paper, it is unlikely that a puzzle maker would repeatedly have come up with the same clues. The chance of capitalization, phrasing, and style resulting in identical clue text is even more improbable. Humans simply aren’t that consistent. Computers are. Through the reuse of the clues, a computerized provenance is revealed.

Perhaps a little ignorant, I’d always assumed that crosswords were human generated. In fact, computer generated crosswords are widespread. There have been published papers on computer generation of crosswords since the 1970s and a New York Times article on the subject was published in 1996 when the practice was beginning to take off. Computers are able to generate puzzles quickly and in quantity and, as a result, are in common use in magazines and on websites.

There’s resistance, however, from both human crossword editors and from solvers who find computer generated puzzles unsatisfying. Great crossword puzzles, they argue, showcase wit and creativity with language; answers are often tied together by themes and wordplay. Computers excel at taking a database of answers and creating grids that match up correctly; they are much faster and more accurate than humans. But as the error that revealed the computer to my friend Seth illustrates, computers are less adept at varying when or how they employ answers and clues in puzzles.

Quoted in an article in Tulsa World, Mark Lagasse, senior executive editor with Dell Magazines, justified his magazine’s choice to fund the more laborious human methods of crossword production saying, “with themes and the better, larger puzzles, it’s best to have a constructor working them out and filling in the diagrams. A lot of the words are a bit more dry and boring when done with computers.” Ultimately, he concludes, computer-generated puzzles simply are not as entertaining as those made by humans.

I did the crossword puzzles in both the Now and the Metro for a couple weeks and I agree with Lagasse. The human generated puzzles are less repetitive, more interesting, and ultimately more satisfying. The computer generated puzzles almost never use word play and have no thematic connections between answers or clues. Of course, I did both Metro and Now puzzles in the past and I always preferred the Now puzzles and found them more fun. But I would have been hard-pressed to justify my feelings. It was not until Seth pointed out the repeated clues, an error, that I was able to understand why I felt the way I did.

Only Yesterday

I only recently stumbled across this old revealing error in the wonderful Doh, The Humanity! weblog:

It may seem like only yesterday (Wednesday, 26 July) when...

In the days of newspapers and broadcast media, it was only likely for someone to read a news article on the day it was published. If the publication were weekly or monthly, it would be reasonable to expect readers got to it within the week or month. While libraries and others might keep archived versions, it was always clear to readers of archived material that their material — and any relative dates mentioned therein — were out of date.

Even today, news is still written primarily be consumed immediately and the vast majority of readers of an article will read it while it is fresh. But, websites have made archived material live on for months and years. While this is generally a good thing, it creates all sorts of problems for people who use relative dates in articles. The point of reference — today — becomes unstable. As a result, if an entertainment reporter describes a show as happening, “next Tuesday,” it might appear to refer to any number of incorrect Tuesdays depending on when someone has stumbled across the archived version.

News companies have responded by converting relative dates into absolute ones. No doubt, this was often done by editors but today is also done by computer programs. These programs parse each news story looking for relative dates. When they find one, they compute the corresponding absolute date from the relative one, and add it into the text of the article in a parenthetical aside.

Most people, including myself, never knew or even imagined that articles were being parsed like this until the system screwed up as it did in the screenshot above. No human editor would have thought to provide an absolute date for “yesterday” in the phrase, “it may seem like only yesterday.” With this misstep, the script at work is revealed. With the mistakes, the program’s previous work — hopefully more accurate and less noticeable in old articles — becomes visible as well. Since seeing this image, I’ve noticed these date absolutefiers at work everywhere.

Technology-Assisted Deception

This error was revealed and written up by Aaron Swartz.

When I told a friend about this project, she (let’s call her Alice) told me a story.

Alice lives a major city with fairly good cell coverage, except for a long tunnel that goes underground. Alice often gets calls from her mom. Alice likes her mom, of course, no problems there, but, as we all do, finds long phone calls with her a bit trying. So often when she’s on the phone with her mom, Alice will say “Oops, sorry mom, got to go into the tunnel now!” Even when she’s not going into the tunnel.

This is a lie that new technology makes possible. But it only makes it possible because there are known failures in the technology. If we only had old landline phones, you’d never be able to claim such a thing — landline phones don’t randomly stop working. And if we had perfect cell coverage, it similarly wouldn’t make sense. But since the technology only half-works, the unfinished space can be used for very human forms of deception.