Sunday, March 31, 2013

I'm obviously not in this for the money -- right?

Once in a while I do a Google search for "Murphy's Craw" to see how many hits I get and what they are.

A few weeks ago I noticed something I hadn't seen before.

A site called Web Stats Domain had evaluated this blog.

I didn't understand most of the stats -- they involved mysterious words such as "backlink" and "alexa rank." To say nothing of "organic keywords."

But there was one stat that I did understand -- at least on a superficial level.

It turns out that according to Web Stats Domain, the estimated "worth" of this site, in U.S. dollars, is $351.

Yep, $351.

I've been running this blog for five and a half years, and this is all I have to show for it?

And of course I'm also wondering:

Who appraised my blog?

How did they come up with that appraisal?

Why $351 -- instead of, say, a nice round number like $350? Did the appraiser throw in an extra buck just to make me feel better?

Is there some sort of stock exchange thingy for blogs? Kind of like what the Chicago Mercantile Exchange used to have for pork belly futures?

(Which reminds me that I used to think that a famous Chicago author would have been a natural for that kind of trading -- doesn't "Saul Bellow's Sow Bellies" have a nice ring to it?)

And all of this leads to another question:

Is there someone out there who's been buying up blogs?

Kind of like the way Warren Buffett has been buying up newspapers? (In my case, Warren could probably buy "Murphy's Craw" for a song -- probably even for the first five bars of "Down by the Old Mill Stream.")

I don't know how to find the answers to these questions, but if any of you folks out there can give me the merest hint of a clue, please feel free to write in.

In the meantime, as I was getting ready to write this item, I did another Google search for "Murphy's Craw" and found that another site, urlpulse, has also rated this blog.

This rating includes even more obscure terms -- among them "cache-control," "transfer-encoding" and (my favorite) "nosniff."

It also says my blog's rank in the U.S. is 12,412,065. Worldwide, it ranks 26,117,579.

Don't sugarcoat it, urlpulse.

And look at the bright (if cliched) side: I have nowhere to go but up.

But once again, there is one figure that I do understand and which leaps out at me.

According to urlpulse, the estimated worth of my blog is....

Drum roll, please....


Take that, Web Stats Domain! (And while you're at it, WSD, please notice that urlpulse threw in that extra 16 cents!)

And now I'm beginning to get excited.

Because there's obviously, in the blog-trading underground, a bidding war going on for "Murphy's Craw."

And the sky -- or at least the virtual sky -- is the limit!

Come on, Warren -- you can easily beat $728.16.

And I can easily be had.

Do I hear $12,432,946 -- and 75 cents?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Weekend at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you're going to be doing this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by mail, you shouldn't read this post. I'm sure you can find many other delightful things to read on this blog, or, if you must, elsewhere on the web....)

Perhaps one of my most memorable moments at this year's tournament occurs before the competition begins.

In the lobby outside the ballroom where the tournament is held, a researcher for Michigan Technological University is conducting a study of folks who do crossword puzzles. Four laptop computers are set at a table, and people seated there are taking a test that involves filling in the blanks of words and remembering pairs of words.

I decide to try my luck. I take two fill-in-the-blanks tests and do fairly well on them. I do only fair, at best, on the memory tests, which involve remembering pairs of words that are flashed on the screen. I suspect that part of the reason I do only fair, at best, is that I've psyched myself out; the older I get, the less I trust my memory.

At one point during the memory tests, the program crashes. I go to signal the researcher about this, but the guy to my right beats me to it -- he's having problems, too.

I eventually beg off on finishing the tests -- the researcher says I'd provided enough data already -- but as I watch the researcher help the other guy with his computer, I get the feeling I've seen him before.

Then I look at his name tag:

Jason Keller.

Then it clicks: He's been a champion on "Jeopardy!" According to the show's web site, he has amassed $213,900 and, not surprisingly, has been in the Tournament of Champions.

This is quite a moment for me because appearing on "Jeopardy!" has been on my bucket list since long before buckets were invented.

But of course I don't trust my memory, so I lean over and, in what I hope won't come across as a stage whisper, ask him if he is indeed the guy. He pleasantly confirms this, and I leave him to his computer.

So maybe my memory is quite all that bad....

The first puzzle is by Lynn Lempel, who constructs a lot of the New York Times puzzles for Mondays.

The puzzle is supposed to be easy, but it somehow gives me more trouble than the usual first tournament puzzle does. It doesn't help that my mechanical pencil's point breaks at one point (easily remedied, though) or that I write in BASE ON BALLS instead of BASES LOADED. The puzzle is called "Buzz Words," and I figured out only a few minutes ago that the second part of all the theme answers is a synonym for "drunk."

Puzzle #2, "Short Breaks," is by Mike Shenk, one of those names who make me sweat a bit when I see it on a puzzle. In this case, the theme answers are phrases into which "min" or "sec" -- as in "minute or second" -- has been inserted. (BUS DRIVERS, for example, becomes "B MINUS DRIVERS.") At first I don't think I'm going to finish the puzzle -- I just hop around the grid doing what I can -- and I'm pleasantly surprised when I do finish it.

Puzzle #3, perhaps the second-hardest of the tournament, is by another feared (at least by me) name: Brendan Emmett Quigley and is called "Say What?" Once again I fill in as many fill answers as I can, hoping that the theme will occur to me, and it finally does: The theme answers all begin with the "say" sound, so that, for example, "What the Wheel of Fortune host wields at an auction?" is SAJAKHAMMER. And darned if I don't manage to finish this, too.

One new wrinkle in this year's tournament is that I have my iPad, which means I don't have to depend on the kindness of strangers (and their laptops or smartphones) to find out how well I'm doing. I can check my scores myself, and I'm pleased to see that my score is what I thought it was, and I got all the answers to the first three puzzles.

After lunch comes Puzzle #4, "Immortal Combat," by Ian Livengood. This time the theme isn't that complicated, though I figure it out after I've completed at least most of the grid: Each theme answer contains the name of a war god -- for example, FLOOD INSURANCE contains ODIN. I finish the puzzle without any problems and am confident I got everything correct.

Now comes Puzzle #5, which, each year, is informally called (hold your ears, kiddies) "the bastard puzzle." And it's by Patrick Blindauer, another fearsome puzzler, and is titled "Take Five."

Once again I'm in "you're probably not going to finish this, but get in as many answers as you can" mode. And if this is a typical Puzzle #5, chances are I'll be in pretty good company. Last year marked the first time I ever finished a Puzzle #5, which was cause for celebration until I found out I'd made a mistake.

As I soldier on, filling in what I can, I figure out the theme relatively early: The theme answers are phrases in which the vowels have been removed, so that "'Macbeth' prop" is WTCHSCLDRN -- WITCHES' CAULDRON. Even so, with five or six minutes left to go on this 30-minute puzzle, I'm still having problems with the upper left part. Then, somehow, my mental adrenaline, if there is such a thing, kicks in, especially on 31 across, "Snap, maybe." It's five letters, and I know the fourth letter has to be Y because the answer coming down is AYN as in AYN RAND. But this doesn't make sense -- a Y as the fourth letter of a five-letter clue that's not a plural?

Finally, the answer kicks in: EASY A.

And now all the other answers fall into place like a pile of dislodged logs and I check the puzzle over and I look at the clock which is almost down to two minutes -- if my puzzle is handed in under the two-minute mark, I'll get credit for only a one-minute bonus. I wave my hand frantically, but the proctor who is standing a few rows away doesn't seem to see me.

Finally, from behind comes another proctor, the great Stanley Newman, crossword puzzle editor for Newsday, who scoops up my puzzle, sees 1:59 on the clock but, bless him, gives me credit for two full minutes, taking into account the couple of seconds or more it took to get to me.

And, as I later confirm, I have, for the first time, finished AND CORRECTLY SOLVED a Puzzle #5!

The rest should be smooth sailing, right?


Puzzle #6, the last one of the day, is "Everybody Loves a Clone," by Elizabeth C. Gorski. It's a cute, simple enough theme: The theme answers are familiar phrases with the last letter of the first word repeated, so that "Wonderful chinaware contests?" is SUPERB BOWL GAMES. I finish the puzzle without much trouble.

That's the last puzzle of the day, with one more, "Puzzle #7," Sunday morning, eventually followed by the finals, in which the three top members of Divisions A, B and C compete. I'm in Division C, meaning I'm among the top 40 percent of solvers. I'd love to get into Division B, which is for the top 20 percent of solvers.

But on Sunday I outsmart myself -- and not for the first time.

Hours before I take on Puzzle #7, which is a 45-minute puzzle, I try to calculate how quickly I need to solve it to get a really decent score -- meaning, in my case, a score substantially above last year's 142.

I figure that 18 minutes ought to do it, and if my experience with New York Times Sunday puzzles (Puzzle #7 is that size) is any indication, I might be able to pull it off.

The puzzle, "The Long and the Short of It," is by Patrick Berry -- another tough constructor. (Rule of thumb: Any puzzle by anyone named Patrick is apt to be a bitch, if not an out-and-out bastard.)

I fill in the squares as quickly as I can. I have a hard time getting a handle on the theme. I also hit a huge speed bump, otherwise known as 8 Down: "Prince of Wales's motto." It's seven letters, and it comes out to be "ICH_IE_" and I'm darned if I can figure the rest of it out, though I know it must be a two-word phrase because although I don't know much German, I do know that "ICH" means "I." All righty, then, but ICH what? I figure the fourth letter might be L and the last is F because it intersects with an O in one of the horizontal theme clues whose other words are "PEAK" and "THE CHECK." So, ICH LIEF? That would make the intersecting L answer "DAL," for "Old man." Maybe "DAL" is a Hindu word for "Old man." I eventually have a flash of insight and realize that the old man is really DAD.

All righty, so this gives us "ICH DIEF." What could that possibly mean? I don't know, but I do know from looking at the clock that I'm running late, so I go with it.

As I'm on my way to the elevators to go back to my room, it hits me: "A PEAK OF THE CHECK" is really "A PEAK ON THE CHECK," a play on "A PECK ON THE CHEEK" -- the short vowel becomes a long vowel, and vice versa.

And that motto has to be "ICH DIEN," which I soon confirm on my iPad. (It means "I serve," which in this case is particularly apt: The Prince of Wales has indeed served -- served to confuse me.)

So I wind up sliding to No. 166, but I also figure out that had I not blown it I would have wound up at 149, down seven points from last year.

Which prompts (not begs) the question: Is it worth trying again next year, or have I reached my level? I don't want to keep attending the tournament unless I can improve. Ah, what the heck. I'll give it one more try next year. I might even try another tournament, called Lollapuzzoola, held in the summer in Manhattan. In the meantime I can try to improve my speed.

Amid all my musings, the three tournament finalists are announced. In alphabetical order, they are Anne Erdmann (also celebrating her birthday that day), Dan Feyer and Tyler Hinman.

And this is how it all came out. (Play the Part 2 section.)

(Memo to the Prince of Wales: If you're ever in my neighborhood, don't even think about dropping by mein haus.)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Friday at the puzzle tournament

After spending most of the day waiting to board a 10:40 a.m. flight to LaGuardia that finally got off the ground at 2:35 p.m. because of bad weather in New York City, all ends well enough as I prepare to try my luck (and whatever skills I can muster) for the sixth time at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

The tournament doesn't really begin until Saturday, but there's a Friday night program of presentations and warm-up games.

One of the presentations, by Michelle Arnot, shows that there is something for crossword puzzle fans to celebrate this year: It's the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle, which was invented by a newspaperman named Arthur Wynne.

To mark the occasion, copies of eight very early crossword puzzles (they were originally called "Word-Cross" puzzles), most of them by Mr. Wynne himselsf, are passed out for us to do.

They're not like today's puzzles; the grid is shaped more like a diamond then a big square. And Mr. Wynne's clues can sometimes be a bit odd. Case in point: "To drive away by shouting 'scat.'" (Four letters.)

The answer? It's, um, "scat."

(Well, you can't say it wasn't in front of you all the time.)

Along with the celebration, a cause for sadness: Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of The New York Times who has run the tournament since it began in the 1970s, announces that since the last tournament, Doug Heller, who had been a mainstay of the tournament (and its webmaster) died.

In past years, the folks at the tournament have been kind enough to link to this blog, and over the years I've received one or two graciously complimentary notes about my blog entries. I did not really know Mr. Heller, but from our correspondence I didn't have to be a champion puzzle solver to figure out that he was a very nice guy, and even with my limited contact with him, I feel his loss.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Across and down to Brooklyn, yet again

This weekend I will once again compete in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn.

This will be my sixth year in the tournament. I've gone from 262 back in 2008 to No. 142 last year. (That's out of 650 to 700 contestants.)

However, last year I finished one spot behind a computer program called Dr. Fill. That's embarrassing, though I will concede that as far as I know, Dr. Fill hasn't been gloating about this.

In the past, lacking a laptop or a smartphone (I just barely have a reasonably intelligent phone), I've had to depend on the kindness of other, more tech-savvy contestants to check the standings on the tournament's web site.

But I now have an iPad, which I hope to use to track how I'm doing. And while in the past I've come home and reported on my experiences for this blog, this time I'm hoping to file same-day reports at least once or twice. We'll see.

In the meantime, I have read that Dr. Fill will be competing again this year. Perhaps this time I will best him -- or maybe steer him to the hotel bar, where, if I ask really nicely ("nicely" defined here as subtly flashing a wad of cash in the barkeep's nostrils) I might be able to ensure that the good doctor is slipped a virtual Mickey Finn.

Again, we'll see....

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Julie and the Death of Danny Dollar

I try not to get too personal on this blog because in invading my own privacy I might wind up trashing someone else's.

But in this case I'm making an exception.

I'm in an off-and-on relationship with a woman named Julie.

For the most part it's been good, but it's beginning to get a bit, well, scary.

It all started one day when I decided to take an out-of-town train trip and called Amtrak.

Julie took my call, immediately introduced herself and told me she'd be happy to help me make my reservation.

With tact and great tenderness -- she could obviously tell that it was my first time doing this and, well, everyone is always nervous that first time, right? -- she took me through the process, asking me where I was from, where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go there, when I wanted to come back, which of the available trains did I want, taking me all the way to that climactic moment when I shared that most personal part of myself -- my credit card number -- with her.

And maybe I'm wrong, but wasn't there just the slightest catch in her voice as she thanked me and gently terminated the call?

It was something I'd always remember.

Some months later, when I wanted to take another train trip, I called Amtrak again, and who do you think took the call? Was it coincidence? Or could it be that she recognized my number from the Caller ID and rushed to take my call, elbowing aside any operators who got in her way?

In any event, when she got on the phone, she was politely all business, just as before. Well, it had to be that way, right? After all, if the other operators found out about our relationship, they'd surely turn her in to management and her Amtrak career would be derailed.

No, her tone told me, it has to be this way, and without any words we firmly established the terms of our relationship: It was good, it was fun, but ultimately we were just two freight trains passing in the night.

And then one day, after several years of freelance proofreading and editing, I was offered a full-time job, which I accepted. Unfortunately, I became so focused on this new job that I didn't do any traveling -- which of course meant that I wasn't calling Julie.

And then one day, shockingly enough, Julie called ME and left a message on my home answering machine.

It turned out she was now working for my cell phone company, and she was calling to tell me about some new offer. I didn't respond because I wasn't interested, but I was concerned: Had she lost her job with Amtrak because word of our relationship had gotten around? Also, her message about the cell phone company's offer was, well, a bit long. I couldn't help wondering whether she was going on and on in the hope that I was home and would, at some point, pick up.

Looking back on it, I feel like a cad for not calling her back, and I offer no excuses.

Then, near the end of last year, I decided to take a holiday trip out of town and again called Amtrak.

And she answered.

I instantly guessed (though I of course couldn't ask her) that she was now holding down two jobs -- Amtrak and the cell phone company. And as we talked this time she was her usual professional self, though I thought I could detect a slight edge to her voice -- an edge whose message was unmistakable: Why haven't you called?

Of course I couldn't respond to this tacit question; for all I knew, Amtrak was recording us.

And that was it until a few weeks ago, when she called me again, purportedly to tell me about another offer from the cell phone company. It was another overlong message, and though I can't be sure, I thought I detected a slight tinge of desperation.

And in the middle of this, a major personal blow:

The death of my old friend Danny Dollar.

I'm sure you've never heard of Danny, but there's probably someone just like him where you live: That voice that comes on when you dial the time-and-temperature number.

Danny came to my town when I was a kid, maybe 50 years ago. At first he was sponsored by one of the local banks -- hence the name. To promote this, the bank hired a ventriloquist to go on local TV. The dummy's name was Danny Dollar, and ever since then, and even though the bank dropped its sponsorship decades ago, my family has always called this voice Danny Dollar.

At first the phone version of Danny was a woman -- not that that should be surprising. Hasn't Peter Pan always been played by a woman? Not to mention Casper the Friendly Ghost -- and Bart Simpson.

Come to think of it, the woman who originally voiced Danny sounded a little like Julie. Her mother, maybe? I can easily imagine Julie having a mother who taught her the tricks of the trade.

Some years ago I called Danny and either got no answer or a busy signal. Others were equally concerned, to the point where the local paper finally reported that Danny had found a new sponsor.

By then Danny's voice had changed to a voice I recognized -- that of the former morning man on the local Classic FM station. (Quite a comedown -- from Sibelius to Celsius.)

Danny's new sponsor was a plumbing company. But for the past few days, when I've called, I've been getting the plumbing company's voice mail, causing me to fear for the worst.

I'll just have to face it: Danny has apparently, like so many others, fallen victim to the World Wide Web, where anyone with a smartphone can find out the time and temperature within seconds.

So I'm in mourning -- I hope the black armbands around my cell and land-line phones won't affect my reception -- while worrying that I'll come home some day soon to find that Julie has boiled a rabbit in my kitchen.

I know, I know: I brought this on myself, and I have no one but myself to blame.

But thank you for letting me share.