Back at the Boston Area Puzzle Hunt League meeting this past September, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Brown University team. (That, by the way, will be the only time I will be affiliated with anything remotely resembling Ivy League.) On the team was one Mr. Jonah Kagan, who was kind enough to give me this puzzle. Thanks, Jonah. All right, let's do this.
BEQ: How'd you get into puzzle making?
Jonah:Towards the end of my senior year of high school, that time when people starts slacking off from school, I was solving a crossword puzzle one day and thought to myself, people must make these things. And if people could make them, then why couldn't I make them? (After all, I was a person!) So I hit Google and eventually found my way to the cruciverb listserve, where Vic Fleming became my mentor and taught me all the fundamentals.
BEQ: You're studying computer science, so the question must be asked: do you make crosswords by hand, your own programming, some software, or combination of the three?
Jonah: I'm kind of a crossword constructing cyborg. I use CrossFire for gridding and filling, pretty much doing things by hand and letting the program assist me. I don't have the crazy knack for filling that some other constructors do though. And then cluing is all from the brain (cross-checked against the databases of course). I program less than you might expect, really just to help me find more entries that fit a theme idea. A lot of constructing is more like executing an algorithm than writing one.
BEQ:Why aren't there more mathy puzzles? I remember your golden radio one, but it seems there's not that many others. You'd think that there would be at least some overlap.
Jonah: Crosswords seem ripe for math. You've got a highly structured playing field and a counting system tying words to numbers. I think maybe the constraints are too strict to shove more math under them. The Fibonacci puzzle I made was difficult enough to grid and fill, and I couldn't even get the name right - I had FIBONACCI SERIES instead of FIBONNACCI SEQUENCE due to the size of the grid. Maybe it's that math aficionados don't want to compromise their mathematical rigor!
BEQ: Wax philosophical about crosswords and programming.
Jonah: They're both super creative problem solving activities. A lot of the time when I'm making a puzzle I feel like I'm devising and executing little algorithms, whether it's coming up with a theme or filling a grid. Of course, the algorithms would usually be better executed by a computer (and sometimes I do write scripts to help me find theme answers), but at the end of the day a computer is only as "smart" as its programmer. Computers could definitely make crosswords consistently as good as the ones we make, we just have to tell them how to do it first.
BEQ: I heard that you wrote a musical.
Jonah: Last year I wrote the lyrics and book for a short musical about the Donner Party. It's a romantic comedy about cannibalism. A senior at RISD is now adapting it into a movie for his final project. You can find the details here.I'm not the first crossword person to be involved in musical theater. It would be interesting to take the set of crossword people, the set of musical theater people, and the set of computer programmers and intersect them. I bet you'd get a pretty cool group of people. I wonder if Stephen Sondheim writes programs too.