I've been spending the past month getting interested in abstract logic puzzles again. I've been trying to arrange my thoughts on the matter to avoid a complete core dump of geeky squee. This will happen someday. In the mean time, know that I've been a tricksy little spider traversing the web for puzzle sites.

Which is where I came across this:

Think of words ending in -GRY. Angry and hungry are two of them. There are only three words in the English language. What is the third word? The word is something that everyone uses every day. If you have listened carefully, I have already told you what it is.


There are only two: angry and hungry. The rec.puzzles archive offers a large collection of words that end in -GRY, but none of them could be considered even remotely common. There are many generally unsatisfying "trick" answers to the problem, which depend on a specific wording of the question or that the question be spoken instead of written. There seems to be no agreement among puzzle historians about which form is the original, or even the age of the problem. In any event, it is apparent that the frequent mutations of the puzzle statement over the years have erased whatever answer was intended by the original author. The usual trick is to play on the expression "the English Language", you are then asked for the third word - which is of course Language! QED.

As you can no doubt tell by the sterling prose and sparkling wit, the first five sentences of the answer were written by me and copied verbatim without permission (AFAIK) or attribution from the rec.puzzles FAQ. This doesn't bother me so much. It's not like I'm directly harmed by it, and I suppose that FAQs are in a murky area where they are written to be freely distributed but arguably not so much to disassembled and repackaged in such a way that the author becomes anonymous. The FAQ itself doesn't (or at least didn't in 2001, which is the latest version that Google seems able to offer -- did my successor totally fall off the web or something?) have a distribution guidelines paragraph that would clarify the sorts of abilities and rights that were expected, although it was clearly written in the modern era and does not explicitly declare itself to be in the public domain. And, while it wouldn't have been difficult for a puzzlemaster to figure out, it's not immediately evident that I am the one of the three editors over the lifespan of the FAQ to write that particular piece of text.

What really chaps my hide is that Kevin Stone somehow managed to plagiarize my words without reading them, because the final sentence jumps over to the LOL NOOB you didn't see the invisible quotation marks when I wrote that there were three words in "the English language" dumbassery. What part of "generally unsatisfying 'trick' answers" and "depend on ... the question being spoken and not written" wasn't clear? He seems like a fine fellow who respects attribution and WOULD credit me if I asked for it, but it's not like I want to be associated with the answer as written. *sigh* I feel like tracking down Karen Lingel and sending her over to Kevin Stone's house with a ball peen hammer to elucidate him, which is not as unpleasant as other criticisms of his solution.
The edits that I made during my stewardship of the rec.puzzles FAQ had one over-arching theme. The document that I inherited was quite ordinary by Usenet standards, being largely about how to quickly become familiar with the posting culture of the community and avoid what over the long term were a fairly predictable series of faux pas. For a newsgroup based on puzzles, this tended to a large part to be a catalog of popular elementary brainteasers that were not to be discussed on the group.

Once the FAQ became my responsibility and I took the time to reflect on it, it struck me that this attitude was unjust. Sure, some people posted the problems because they were clueless asshats who couldn't be bothered to read the backlog before jumping in with their own contributions, but there were others who genuinely didn't know the answer to the questions, and to them the FAQ was just the first half of a puzzle book when they were ready for the damned spoiler. My revelation was that if these were frequently asked questions and I was the FAQ maintainer, then it was my job to answer them. Over time with plenty of feedback, I devised concise formulations of the questions and answers that would be satisfactory to both the neophyte and the pedant that they wouldn't feel the need to ask after reading the FAQ.

And the result was highly satisfying. I had expected that there would be fewer threads on the verboten subjects, and there were. But I had not expected that those threads that did pop up would be shorter and friendlier, and they were. The reason for this is that we no longer had a neophyte trying to answer the question and doing it in such a poor manner than people felt the need to post their own corrections and then the merry-go-round was back up to full speed. A brief, well-written answer in a clearly marked place that represented the consensus of the community was a valuable treasure. It has always struck me that the late 1990's saw a significant drop-off in the popular analysis of the "Monty Hall Paradox" as a fight between two equally compelling but different conclusions, and in my more prideful moments I wonder whether I played a role in testifying that the correct solution was more intuitive than the wrong one.


I bring up this story because a small part of me dies every time I see Buzzword Bingo applied to discussion of controversial subjects online. Sure, I get that stupid people are so stupid that they say twenty-four stupid things. They are mockable, and it is easy and crowd-pleasing to mock them. But I challenge you, as one who has been there, to see if you agree with me that there is a deeper pleasure in spending those few hours impersonally addressing twenty-four misunderstandings and establishing that as a bedrock of your community's sentiment that both your critics and allies can reference more quickly than they can debate.


Matthew Daly

December 2012

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