Nerdplay

I started doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in 2007, when I saw the documentary Wordplay. Up to that point, I hadn’t done a crossword except as a student or a teacher. But the documentary did such a good job of explaining the puzzles and the people who write or solve them that I was hooked immediately.

Well, I shouldn’t say hooked. I tried solving the puzzle for about a year after that. We used to get The Oregonian newspaper in the classroom that I ran in a school for kids in drug rehab. It ran the NYT puzzle, and during my breaks I’d try it. I struggled quite a bit, even with the “easy” Monday puzzles. The contenders in the NYT‘s puzzle championship typically use Mondays only as a warmup, and can get through one in under two minutes. At the time, even if I could get through one, it took me about fifteen.

My writer friend Johnny Shaw ,who actually wrote puzzles for a bunch of publications other than the NYT before he started selling novels, looked at me disgusted whenever I said I tried the Monday puzzles. “God, why would you ever do a Monday?” he asked. “If you have to do a Monday, make it hard. Only do the downs. Try that.”

I stopped doing the puzzle sometime in 2008 or ’09. For one, The Oregonian stopped giving us free papers. That was fine with me—print newspapers are dying, anyway, and as someone still paying off my undergrad journalism degree, I was a little ashamed that I’d do the puzzle and throw the rest of the paper in the recycling box.

A year or so ago, I decided to try the puzzle again, only I’d do it online. I bought a subscription on the puzzle app, which allowed me to not only do the puzzle every day, but also any puzzle all the way back to November of 1993. The app keeps track of your stats, too, which allows me to see if I’m getting better. It turns out that I am.

I’ll never be as good as Johnny or any of the braniacs in Wordplay. But I have gotten my Monday time down to a nine-minute average, with my best real score down around five minutes. (I posted a three-something minute time once, but that was when I’d completed the puzzle, then went back and saw that it didn’t save for some reason. I still remembered most of the clues, and raced through it as fast as I could, just to see. And still didn’t go as fast as some dudes who are doing it for the first time. Dicks.)

So here is a breakdown of my stats, after doing the puzzle daily for the past year and a half or so:

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My stats page for the NYT crossword puzzle as of Jan. 12, 2017.

Random observations:

• I’ve finished 367 puzzles and, according to my pathetic solve percentage of just over 40 percent, I started over 900 of them. There are probably a few dozen unsolved puzzles littering the archives, but usually I just hit the “Reveal puzzle” function and bail.

• I last did that on the most recent Friday puzzle, which was a complete pain in the ass. I don’t remember what it was that made it so hard, but when I quit on it I was really pissed off.

• As you can see, the puzzle starts easy on Monday, then gets harder through the week. The hardest is the Saturday puzzle. The Sunday puzzle takes the longest, but that’s only because it’s bigger than the others. It’s on a 21-x-21 grid, while the other six days are on a 15-x-15.

• So Monday is easy and Tuesday is a slightly harder Monday. Wednesday is a little harder, and sometimes adds some kind of gimick. For example, it’ll use rebuses, which are squares that have more than one letter in them, or entire words. Thursday is a harder Wednesday. Friday and Saturday play it straight again, and have a similar easier-harder relationship as the Monday-Tuesday/Wednesday-Thursday grids.

• The greatest, most beautiful puzzle I ever saw was a Wednesday, back in 2009 or so. The black squares that formed the spaces between the words formed giant, interlocking capital C’s. Not only did every clue start with the letter C, but a handful of them were actually just capital C’s. For example, the answer might be “one hundred” or “Carbon.” Just a beautiful puzzle, and I wish I could find it again in the archives.

• Sunday, it’s been reported to me, is about as hard as a Thursday—again, only bigger.

• Of course, I was curious about whether this was true or not. I was also curious about something I’d noticed with the Thursday puzzle. Generally, I can do a Monday-Wendesday anymore with little concern that I won’t finish. But the level of difficulty seems to jump drastically between Wednesday and Thursday. So I fed my stats into a spreadsheet to figure out the relative difficulty of the puzzles I’ve solved. I used the following formula:

Area of the puzzle in squares ÷ my average time in solving it = seconds per square

Here’s what I came up with:

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As you can see, a Thursday takes me more than twice as long per square as a Wednesday. And sure enough, the time per square average on a Thursday is almost as exact as the big Sunday puzzle.

One random note: Going back to November 1993 is humbling. I don’t know why, but the puzzles back then were just harder. A Monday then is Thursday-Friday hard, while a Saturday isn’t that much harder. It’s kind of all over the map. It’s been said that the only difference between a hard Saturday and an easy Monday is in the clues, not the answers themselves.

For example, a typical Monday clue would be: “Ready, willing, and _____”

Answer: ABLE.

At the other end of the scale, a typical clue from the most recent Saturday was, “Something to pick a number from.”

Answer: JUKEBOX.

So, JUKEBOX isn’t a hard word, but you had to really think on the clue, and unless you had previously put in the K or the X, you’d never guess it.

Now, back in the day, some brainiac was writing these things. There, the words are harder, and even a Monday might have a word or two that I’ve never seen before. For example, a Monday clue from 1993 was, simply, “Esne.” The answer was SERF.

I know what a SERF is, but Esne is a new one. I do not know that word.

I don’t know a lot of things, actually. But I do know that bailing on a Monday puzzle from any year is really humiliating. But I’m getting better.

 

A Foot of Snow

Gorham got its first major storm of the winter, probably the biggest since we’ve been here. We were supposed to have gotten a couple feet but the storm didn’t hit us dead-on. A foot was enough. Today, I walked to the end of town, talking to a friend on the phone and shooting one-handed.

The light changed every ten minutes or so. Snow came and went. The wind blew then stopped then started again. It’ll be like this for four more months.

Gilead

Gilead is the first town in Maine you hit on U.S. Route 2, just over the border from here. There’s not much going on, at least from the looks of things. We passed through on our Christmas Day drive on Sunday, and I got these photos.

I guess I’m proudest of the cemetery photo. I’m a little leery of publishing cemetery photos, not because I think it’s disrespectful, but because I’m worried someone else might. As a newcomer to New England, I don’t want to offend anyone. But I figure if the beings who call a cemetery home are somehow aware that I’m taking photos of their headstones, they’re probably not upset about it. Quite the contrary: They’re probably happy for the company.

Anyway, I spotted the headstones poking out of the ice as we zipped past doing 60 miles an hour. I’m typically pretty bad about stopping if I see stuff but I’ve got family in the car. I don’t like making them wait. Actually, that’s not true: I hate dealing with the eye-rolling that I perceive they’ll do, even though they’re usually quite tolerant of my sidesteps. So I turned the Jeep around and got a nice photo of a very pretty cemetery, dating back hundreds of years.

Fret not, departed spirits of Gilead, Maine. You look great. Thanks for having me over.

Church

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Church, Shelburne, NH.

I was a few minutes early for the School Board meeting in Shelburne Tuesday night and saw that the little church next to the town offices was lighting up the “New England concrete” quite nicely. Despite my bronchitis and the 13°F wind, I grabbed my bag and my tripod and wobbled over on the icy road to set up. I took five or six frames at various stops and exposure times before my stinging hands compelled me to get inside.

Sharpness is my new dogma. I’m trying to shoot at higher stops and using a tripod for a lot of scenery, even when there’s enough light to get by without it. Using the tripod allows me to live-view focus and also to set a two-second timer. I don’t want even the action of my finger on the shutter button to move the camera.

Oh, and this photo captured the Andromeda Galaxy, left of center. Ain’t that grand?

Seacoast

Up here in what is called the North Country*, it’s easy for me to forget that New Hampshire is a coastal state. It has the nation’s shortest coastline—13 miles—but it packs quite a bit into them. Portsmouth is the jewel in the crown, a four hundred year old city of about 20,000 people across the Piscataqua River from Maine. Its old houses are a mix of colonial and British seaport. Working your way down the coast toward the forehead of Massachusetts, you run into little beach and fishing villages. Even stopping for photos, you can do the entire thing in an hour or two.

 


*North Country: An area, latitude-wise, about 50 miles south of my former home of Portland, Ore.

The Best Reason for a Card: No Reason

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About once a year, I buy a box of blank cards and send them out to people—friends, family, and anyone else who might appreciate it. Think about it: There are people in your life and at its margins who, right now, would really appreciate hearing from you.

Why not send them a random, out-of-nowhere card, telling them that you’re thinking of them and that you hope all is well. I’ve done this, a box at a time, and let me tell you, the effect on your karma and general sense of well-being is pretty damn great.

I’m not saying this just to move merchandise—though not coincidentally, I do sell cards—but because in these trying times, we need to be reaching out to people and mailing out a little love. Or at least a tidy stack of “like.” This has been a trying year for everyone, and the only way we’re going to make it through is one kind word at a time.

Or, say, a hundred, neatly printed on a card.

What are you waiting for?

 

Bolts

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Lightning, Gorham, N.H., July 22, 2016

Pretty terrific thunderstorm last night, but by the time it hit, I was ready for bed. I ended up shooting it through the window screen. A lot of otherwise passable frames were out of focus—It’s hard to find things to live-focus on at night—and I was also hindered by the fact that I was shooting through a window screen.

There’s a 40 percent chance of storms tonight. If one hits, I’ll try again, maybe go someplace more interesting than my damn window screen.

Tilting

Paid a visit to the wind turbines above Berlin today.

A few photos as well:

I like turbines because they’re clean, they make electricity without making a mess, and because they’re beautiful. I don’t know enough about them to make a judgment about whether they cost more than they put out or hurt the environment in other ways, or what. But they’re beautiful enough that I’d probably be fine with them just as giant art installation pieces.

Doing some minimal Googling, I see that one of these turbines can generate enough power to run 240-400 homes. There were five up there, so basically that’s enough to run most if not all of Berlin.

Standing under the towers, I felt small and big at the same time. Small because I’m about fifty times shorter than one of them, but big because members of my species came up with these things and figured out the science and engineering of how to make them work. I loved how three turbine blades the size of 747’s swooped audibly at my head and then flung themselves back around, powered by a breeze that didn’t feel that strong. At no point did I feel like I needed to flinch or worry about the blades flying off or any of that. Truly a monument to ingenuity and aesthetics.

When we’re not killing each other, humans are great.

Maine

Went into Maine again today, and like last time, I’m not thrilled with the images I got. But then, I’m down to one wide angle lens (10-18mm wide angle). It’s forcing me to work on my Pretty Pictures. But I’m sorely missing my 100 mm macro, which was stolen in January. And I also miss my Sigma zoom, which served faithfully for a year and a half but couldn’t escape the fact that it was 1) garbage and 2) had the optics of a Coke bottle. Still, even though the auto focus never worked and every far-away image looked like it had the shimmering effects of a 1985 Night Ranger video, a lousy lens is better than no lens at all.

And we won’t talk about what happened to my Canon’s 18-55mm kit lens two weeks ago. Humiliating.

Time to replace the macro, and I’ll work on replacing the zoom with something decent.

Camp Botanist

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Timothy grass after rain, Gorham, N.H.

Timothy grass holds a special place in my heart. One day at Outdoor Education in sixth grade, the other 11-year-olds and I were sitting through a talk on grasses of Colorado. (This was exciting as it sounds.) Anyway, the biologist held up various plant samples and asked us if we knew what they were. She first produced a long, bristly stalk, which without waiting or even raising my hand I identified as rye. My dad liked rye bread and I’d seen it on the packages, so that was easy.

The biologist then held up a fat stalk of wheat and asked about that. Wheat was easy. I didn’t want to answer two of these in a row. But when no one could identify it, I couldn’t stop myself. I raised my hand and said the answer. Then the lady held up a fuzzier stalk like the one up there in the photo and looked right at me. A challenge. A dare. In a flashback right out of Slumdog Millionaire, I remembered an encyclopedia photo I’d seen that summer of a tiny species of bird “so small it can balance on a stalk of timothy grass.” Sure enough, adorably, there was a little yellow bird, gripping the grass with his tiny little feet.

“Timothy grass,” I said to the biology lady, like a boss.

A boss of plants.

Anyway, long story short, the lady was impressed with my turf trifecta and told our teachers about it. When they handed out awards on the last day, I won Camp Botanist. (You haven’t heard about this? It was in all the papers.)

So it poured this afternoon in Gorham, a sudden thunderstorm that wasn’t in any of the forecasts. I went out shooting afterward and spotted some timothy still leaning over and weighted with rain. No tiny birds, though.

 

Saturn


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My adorable telescope, plus the camera adapter minus the camera, but including a bottle of A&W Cream Soda. So I am now a diabetic.

 

A few years ago, I spent about $100 to be able to mount my Canon DSLR to my telescope. I’ve since discovered that shooting anything other than the moon is pretty much impossible. Focusing on something that small (though bright) through a cheap telescope and 100 km of turbulent atmosphere is not something my camera likes to do. The object is never sharp enough to see in a photo. My telescope doesn’t track, either, so there goes photographing any deep sky stuff.

So, yeah, I’m pretty much stuck with the moon.1

Fortunately, the Canon comes with a video camera option. With Saturn lurking just over the southern horizon, I made this little clip:


 

1. Yeah, taking pictures of the moon is cool through a telescope, I guess. But the photos aren’t that great. They’re dark and grimy looking no matter what, and even if you’re live-view focusing, they’re never very sharp. You can do just as well with any decent zoom lens and some cropping. If you want to look at the moon, you’re better off just peeking through the eyepiece, where the view is much prettier for some reason—tack sharp and well lit.

Catching Up

It’s certainly been a while. Here are some photos ranging from mid April to just this week.

Beholding

Early spring birch trees, Gorham, NH


I still can’t seem to get a handle on New Hampshire’s beauty. I was explaining to someone back home that the Granite State is beautiful, just not in ways that I always see or appreciate. But I can’t think of a better place to learn photography.

Oregon makes it almost too easy. No matter where you go, there’s a very pretty but kinda bland tree/mountain/hillside vista. Pleasant to look at, sure—and perfectly at home on the free insurance company calendar where it often ends up. But New Hampshire, with all of its sticks and bony outcrops, isn’t so easy. Especially this time of year, the views are stark and bereft of color. Here, you gotta work for it.

Happy Easter!

Special Guest ‘Star’

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Constellation Leo, late March, Gorham, NH, with Jupiter a few degrees south. 30 second exposure, ISO 3200.

Leo is “my” constellation. Even though astrology is a bunch hooey and applesauce,  I’m glad to have Leo as “my”sign. The crouching lion is one of the few constellations that actually looks like the thing it represents.

I like Jupiter being there, too. The high clouds smeared its light a bit, making it actually look like the giant planet’s disk is visible. It’ll be interesting to track Jupiter over the next few weeks to see how it moves against the background stars.

 

 

The Hunter Retires

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Orion, late March, Gorham, NH, 30 second exposure, ISO 3200.

Orion sets a little earlier every night and by April he’ll be gone until the fall. The seeing tonight wasn’t great, with a high, thin layer of clouds. The good news is, the slight smear gave objects a bit more size. Betelgeuse’s reddish hue is easily visible.

My favorite thing about Orion is that most of the bright stars in this photo will someday blow up. The one on the upper right, Bellatrix, won’t, but Betelgeuse, Saiph (lower left), and Rigel (lower right) will definitely go boom within a few million years. The three bright stars in Orion’s belt are all Class O stars, super hot and massive. They definitely aren’t long for this universe.

Dusky

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Total lunar eclipse of Sept. 27, 2015, seen from Gorham, NH

I invited some kids from my school out to see the eclipse with me, which put me in teacher mode and not so much in photographer mode. I didn’t get the shots I could have gotten had I been a bit more focused on getting them. That’s probably fine. The world needs more teachers and fewer photographers, anyway.

On my Facebook page, I made a borderline snarky post about the “Supermoon” hype, which I’m thoroughly sick of. There have been at least 10 of these super-close full moons since I first heard of them. The moon doesn’t appear any larger to the naked eye, at least unless someone points it out. Now we had the “Supermoon eclipse.”

But I have to admit, the moon did look bigger, especially when it was low on the horizon. It had the horizon effect—which is an illusion—plus the supermoon thing, which isn’t. Both conspired to create a memorable moonrise this weekend.

Aglow

Bee in flower, Pinkham Notch, NH
Bee in flower, Pinkham Notch, NH

Great Glen Trails has a lot of flowers planted around their visitors center. With winter coming, most of them are starting to look a little beat up. Most of them had some kind of insect crawling in our around them. But the bugs were glued to the blossoms. They weren’t flying at all. The ones that moved at all did so with a smooth, eerie slowness that didn’t necessary seem sad. It didn’t seem like anything.

It’s not looking good, but I’m rooting for the bugs just the same.

Albedo

Schoolyard basketball court, Gorham, NH
Schoolyard basketball court, Gorham, NH

Albedo is a term I learned from astronomy. It refers to the percentage of light reflected off a surface. A theoretical perfect mirror would have an albedo of 1, as it would reflect 100 percent of the light that hits it. (There’s no perfect mirror; you always get a dimmer image in the reflection.) Conversely, I  would have figured this blacktop would have an albedo close to zero.

Apparently not: It turns out the albedo for “worn asphalt” is 0.12, or 12 percent. That’s much higher than I would have expected. Once I learned that, I began noticing that headlights reflect off of roads quite brightly, even during the day.

I guess the light is winning.

Labor Day

Photos from a Labor Day hike along Snyder Brook in Randolph.

The stream was thin in spots, as we haven’t had heavy rainfall in quite some time. The woods have quite a bit of life in them. Winter isn’t for a couple of months yet, but having come through one in the North Country already, it’s hard not to feel it looming in the distance.

Distance

Milky Way (Sagittarius) and path of Boeing 777-300 airliner behind elementary school, Gorham, NH.
Milky Way (Sagittarius) and path of Boeing 777-300 airliner behind elementary school, Gorham, NH.

I tried this shot last fall, my first at this school. My focusing then was terrible (and didn’t get much better for this one), but the biggest problem was the pair of lights in the vestibule. I just couldn’t find the switches to turn them off. For the 30 second exposure necessary to get the stars in the background, the lights overwhelmed just about everything.

With the beautiful weather of the past few weeks, I wanted this shot again. I asked one of the custodians where the light switch was, and he informed me that there aren’t any. He said I could unscrew the little jars covering the bulbs, then unscrew the bulbs themselves as long as I put them back when I was done. I asked, “Can I do that?” He shrugged and said, “Sure, you’re the principal.”

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.

Anyway, the red streak is the exposed lights on a Qatar Airways flight from JFK (about 300 miles south west of us) to Doha. The plane had taken off in the past hour and was just settling in for a 10-hour voyage to the Middle East. So we have the school, 30 feet away; the plane, 30,000 feet away; and a little farther back, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, 1.4×1017 feet away.

Give or take.