Sunday April 2, 2006

Puzzle 17

For their pledge drive—which, I note in passing, appears to be synchronized with NPR's—the folks at the LINGUIST List have created a series of web-based puzzles called "Lexicon: A Linguistic Game Without Rules".  Some of the puzzles are easy; some are harder.  I'm currently stalled on the seventeenth puzzle, as are Heidi and, the last time I talked to him, trochee.  I want to finish the game, so let's cheat collaborate!

Here's what I think I know (sorry, no link, that would be cheating):

  • The puzzle consists of a set of blank spaces with numbers between 1 and 22, with a single text field below labeled "Unscramble".  Looks like a Caesar cipher to me—well, not exactly a Caesar cipher, but you know what I mean: letters encoded as numbers.
  • The obvious thing doesn't work: if 1 = A, we get VHAEAOE OGUHAFRE.  That doesn't seem to unscramble to anything.
  • Four of the numbers are red, two are blue, and the rest (ten more) are black, which must mean something.  But what?
  • Guessing that the red and blue letter might imply a shifting of the alphabet, I tried making a spreadsheet with all the possible ciphers (i.e. 1 = A, 1 = B, etc.), but nothing is jumping out at me.  I tried treating red and blue letters as forward and backward rotations-by-N, as referencing the previous and next ciphers (i.e. 1 = Z and 1 = B), and some other permutations, but not joy.
  • I also tried using English letter frequencies (ETAOIN SHRDLU...) instead of alphabetical order.  Nada.

This all seems like way too much work.  The previous puzzles have sometimes been subtle, but not all that complicated, so I suspect I'm either overthinking the problem, or else barking up entirely the wrong tree.  Any bright ideas?  If you know the solution, drop a hint!

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I know the answer, but I used brute force (so to speak), so I won't be of much help.

Posted by: AJ at Apr 2, 2006 5:51:59 AM

I'm stuck there too. Guess I'm in good company. :)

Posted by: Rachel at Apr 2, 2006 11:50:57 AM

Wow, AJ's the first person I've found that's gotten past #17. Yes, I tried letter frequencies, various versions of A=1, etc., googling the number series, googling the letter series from the aforementioned methods, and altogether done way too much work, if I'm to judge by the previous puzzles. I would sure love a clue, too! :-P

Posted by: King Alfred at Apr 2, 2006 3:53:20 PM

AJ, without giving too much away, can you tell us what you meant by "brute force"?

Posted by: The Tensor at Apr 2, 2006 4:02:09 PM

I can add another linguist to the list of stuck: a certain M. (recently accidentally LJ-outed by a certain TstT).

I haven't really spent any more time on it but I hope that AJ will tell us something about the direction of brute force.

Posted by: Trochee at Apr 2, 2006 4:23:26 PM

Let's get one thing straight: you guys do realise this is a contest with prizes, right? (Although the prizes are most probably gone by now.)

Posted by: AJ at Apr 2, 2006 4:32:56 PM guys do realise this is a contest with prizes, right?

Is it? I don't see any mention of prizes on the page describing the game. If there are prizes, though, I guess it would be unreasonable to expect you to jeopardize your chance at fame and fortune.

Posted by: The Tensor at Apr 2, 2006 4:55:37 PM

I think they may have been posted on the Linguist List homepage, like the prizes in the haiku contest are now. Please, don't get me wrong, I'd like you all to win prizes, but posting hints just doesn't seem fair to anyone who's not reading this blog. Maybe I'm making too much fuss about it, I don't know. [Edited to prevent an unclosed quote from swallowing the rest of the text.]

Posted by: AJ at Apr 2, 2006 6:25:20 PM

...homepage (which I tried to link to, but the rest of my post got eaten), like the haiku contest prizes are now. Please, don't get me wrong, I want everyone to win fabulous prizes, but posting hints just doesn't seem fair to anyone who's not reading this blog. Maybe I'm making too much fuss about it, I don't know.

BTW, I've already won my prize.

Posted by: AJ at Apr 2, 2006 6:33:27 PM

I also finished and won a prize. I've emailed with one of the authors of LEXICON, and last I checked, all but one of the prizes were gone.. and I know someone who finished since then, so all the prizes are gone by now.

I also used a brute force approach--I wrote a little program to find all pairs of words that contain a correct arrangement of letters across the pair. I only found two.. one of them came up with an obvious anagram.

Here are some hints, though:

- the puzzle contains a red herring (and a blue herring, too). The instructions warn you about clues that will lead you astray.

- there are online cryptogram solvers (I discovered after writing my own, dang it!).. VHAEAOE OGUHAFRE, while not an answer, is a cryptogram of an answer.

- there are online anagram generators, which will do interesting things to your cryptogram solution.

- this last hint is a meta-hint.. and it is a MAJOR SPOILER. If you want to *solve* the puzzle on your own (rather than *find the answer*), don't decode it, just use the hints above. I've encoded it using a poorly-written ceasar-cipher encoder ( ) you can use it to mostly decode it with a shift of -3:

wklqn ri wkh dqvzhuv wr rwkhu sxccohv. li brx kdgq'w vhhq wkh txhvwlrq, zkdw zrxog brx jxhvv wkh dqvzhu wr eh?

As for the haiku contest, one of the prizes is a Speculative Grammarian prize pack, including a t-shirt, bumper sticker/magnet, and a guest editorship/issue dedication. You can check out the prizes SpecGram here:

Posted by: Trey at Apr 3, 2006 5:30:06 AM

I used a crossword dictionary to find 7-letter words in which the 4th and the 7th letters are the same. Among those I looked for words in which the 3rd and the 5th letters are the same. Then I checked if the letters in the words I'd found fit the whole puzzle.

Posted by: AJ at Apr 3, 2006 6:11:06 AM

Tensor, you got me started on that devilish game, and now I have not even reached the fabled heights of number 17; I am stuck on the "fork" problem. Anyway, it was fun until now, so thanks for the recommendation.

Posted by: Laurel at Apr 25, 2006 9:48:22 PM