North Coast Puzzle Club (NCPC or NikPik)

Welcome to NikPik! Yes, that's sort of a reverse acronym for North Coast Puzzle Club or NCPC. Here you'll always find a puzzle or two to work on during those downtimes where others look at TikTok or text their friends or watch YouTube videos, and members will be able to post their own puzzles for others to work on both during our meetings and whenever else they have time.

Speaking of meetings, we will meet Mondays from 6:30 - 8 pm at various public and private places, according to the wishes of members and availability. There is no cost to participate in the meetings or use this site, as the idea is to provide a place and time for people to gather and have fun with puzzles and games and other nerdy stuff, and maybe even learn a thing or two!

March 25, 2024
6:30 pm

Fort George Brewery & Public House
1483 Duane Street
Astoria, OR 97103


Check out the elemental dictionary, where all the words are spelled with chemical symbols from the periodic table! We'll be doing some constrained writing using this dictionary at puzzle club, and you can do so at home anytime! See here and here for more on constraining writing, and have fun with it!


the puzzler book

One winter morning several years ago, I got an email with some ridiculously exciting news. Or so I thought. The email was from a friend who informed me that the answer to 1-­Down in that day’s New York Times crossword puzzle was . . . ​ me. The clue was “A.J. _______, author of The Know-­ It-­ All.” My first reaction was This is the greatest moment of my life. My marriage and the births of my kids, yes, those were pretty good. But this!

As a word nerd since childhood, this was the holy grail! And then, a couple of hours later, I got another email that changed everything. It came from my brother-­in-­law. He congratulated me but went out of his way to point out that my name was featured in the Saturday edition of the New York Times puzzle. As crossword fans know, Saturday is the hardest puzzle of the week. Monday’s is the easiest, with each day’s grid getting more and more difficult until Saturday, when the puzzle reaches peak impenetrability. Saturday is the killer, the one with the most obscure clues, harder than Sunday. We’re talking clues like Francisco Goya’s ethnic heritage (Aragonese). Or the voice of the car in the sitcom My Mother the Car (Ann Sothern). Stuff no normal person knows.

So my brother-­in-­law’s implication —­ or at least my interpretation — was that my Saturday appearance was the opposite of a compliment. Unlike a Monday or Tuesday mention, it’s actually proof that I’m totally obscure, the very embodiment of irrelevance.

Dammit. I could see his point. No doubt this wasn’t the most charitable interpretation, and my rational side knew I shouldn’t let it tarnish my elation. But I couldn’t help it. I’m a master of focusing on the negative once it’s shown to me. It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo. I can’t unsee it. My life’s highlight now had a galling asterisk.

Then, a couple of years later, my crossword adventure took another twist. I was on a podcast, and I told the tale of my emotional roller coaster. Well, it turns out one of the people listening to the podcast was a New York Times crossword creator. God bless him, he decided to take pity on me and save me from my end-­of-­the-­week shadows. He wrote a puzzle with me as the answer to 1-­Across, and submitted it to run on a Tuesday. Legendary crossword editor Will Shortz let it through. And that became the true greatest moment of my life. I know full well I don’t belong in a Tuesday puzzle. It’s where truly famous names like Biden and Gaga make their home. I was thrilled to sneak in as an interloper. I mean, it’s not Monday, but it’s more than I could have hoped.

I emailed the crossword creator, who has since become a friend, and thanked him. He said it was no problem. Though he admitted that, to compensate, he had to make the corresponding down clues
super-­easy, like TV Guide-crossword-­puzzle easy. I’m okay with that. As I hinted, there’s a reason my crossword cameos made me ecstatic beyond what is appropriate. Namely, I’ve been crazy for puzzles all my life.

Partly I inherited this passion from my family. When my dad was in the army in Korea and my mom was stateside, they’d keep in touch by sending a puzzle back and forth, each filling out a clue or two per turn. Not the most efficient method but certainly romantic. So I was introduced to crosswords early. But I wasn’t monogamous when it came to puzzles. I embraced all kinds: mazes, secret codes, riddles, logic puzzles. As a kid who was not in danger of being recruited to varsity teams, nor burdened with a time-­consuming dating schedule, I spent my spare time on puzzles. My bookshelf was filled with titles like “Brain-­busters” or “Brain-­twisters” or “Brain-­teasers” — anything involving mental sadism. I programmed mazes on my school’s Radio Shack computer. I did hundreds of mix-­ and-­matches in Games magazine. Puzzles were my solace.

My enthusiasm didn’t wane as I grew older. Like my parents, I married a fellow puzzle lover. It’s her job, in fact. My wife, Julie, works at a company that puts on scavenger hunts for corporations, as well as private events. Our weekends often involve escape rooms or games of Mastermind with our three sons. For my birthday a couple of years ago, my son Zane created an elaborate mental obstacle course that included Sudoku, Rubik’s Cubes, and anagrams. It took me two weeks to crack, which didn’t impress him. I’ve even tried to recruit our dog, Stella, into the puzzle cult. I buy her these “doggie puzzles” where she has to flip open a latch to get her doggie treat. The manufacturer claims it will keep her canine brain stimulated, though I’m guessing Stella’s brain is mostly thinking “Next time, asshole, just give me the peanut butter on a spoon.”

After my appearance as 1-Down a few years back, I went from being an occasional crossword solver to a frequent one, perhaps unconsciously hoping I’d reappear. I did the Times crossword every day. At first, I only solved a smattering of words in the harder puzzles. But eventually, after years of practice, I could reliably finish Saturday’s puzzles. My addiction became a problem. One day, I decided I wasn’t getting enough accomplished in my life and I should quit all puzzles. I figured it would free up several hours every week. Who knows what I could get done? Maybe I’d start a podcast or run a triathlon or build a barn!

The experiment was a failure. After two months, I relapsed, and I relapsed hard. Puzzles once again began to mark the start and end of my day. Now, as soon as I wake up, I check my iPhone for the New York Times Spelling Bee, a find-­a-­word game that is both compelling and maddening (What?! You’re telling me “ottomen” isn’t a word? Then what’s the plural of “ottoman”?!). Before going to sleep, I do Wordle and the Times crossword puzzle.

Since my relapse, I’ve come to two important realizations about puzzles.

1) I’m not a great puzzler.

I mean, I’m okay. But as I started to meet real puzzlers, I got an insight into a whole other league. I realized I’m like the guy who plays decent intramural basketball, but is no match for the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants.

2) Puzzles can make us better people.

Okay, there’s a pretty good chance this is more of a rationalizationthan a realization—­a way to justify all the mental energy I spend on puzzles. But rationalization or not, I believe it deeply: puzzles are not a waste of time. Doing puzzles can make us better thinkers, more creative, more incisive, more persistent. I’m not just talking about staving off dementia and keeping our minds sharp. Yes, there’s some mild evidence that doing crossword puzzles might help delay cognitive decline (it’s probably not just puzzles that help—­ any mental challenge might delay dementia, whether it’s puzzles or learning a new language).

I’m talking about something more global. It’s been my experience that puzzles can shift our worldview. They can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mindset—­ a mindset of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships —­ and a desire to find solutions.

These insights sparked the idea for the book you are holding now. I decided to embrace my passion and do a deep dive into the puzzle world. I pledged to embed myself with the world’s greatest puzzle solvers, creators, and collectors and learn their secrets. I’d try to crack the hardest puzzles in each genre, from jigsaws to crosswords to Sudoku.

My hope is that the adventures and revelations I had will be entertaining and useful, whether you are a puzzle fanatic, a puzzle skeptic, or a full-­on puzzlephobe. I can tell you that when I started, I wouldn’t have predicted the fascinating trip to come. I certainly didn’t know that I’d be researching part of my book during the Covid crisis. With all of us stuck inside, puzzles had a spike in popularity not seen since the Great Depression. As Ross Trudeau, a New York Times crossword creator, wrote during the depths of the pandemic, puzzles and the puzzle community provided him a “balm against anxiety, anger, depression.” He added, “I love y’all. We’ll get through this.”

When I was able to travel, I went anywhere great puzzles took me. My family and I competed in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Spain. I visited the artists at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan who make intricate wooden puzzle boxes that sell for thousands of dollars. I learned the surprising history of puzzles, perhaps the oldest form of entertainment. I learned how they’ve played a part in religion, love, and war. How the British secret service used a crossword puzzle in The Daily Telegraph to recruit codebreakers against the Nazis. How Benedict Arnold sent secret messages encoded in publicly available books (a method that is still used today, with slight variations).

I met the man who holds a record for solving the Rubik’s Cube with his feet. I got a lesson on solving chess puzzles from Garry Kasparov and visited the CIA to see the infamous unsolved Kryptos sculpture. I grappled with a puzzle that has 641,453,134,591,872,261,694,522,936,731,324,693 possible arrangements, but only one solution. I’ve seen the dark side of puzzles, how they can overlap with paranoia and obsession. And I grew to love types of puzzles that never appealed to me before. I talked to scientists about why we’re so drawn to puzzles, why an estimated 50 million people do crosswords every day and more than 450 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold. In the end, I’ve come to a conclusion that may seem overly bold, but I’m going to try to convince you of it by the time you finish this book. The conclusion is that puzzles can save the world. Or at least help save the world.

Puzzles can teach us lessons about fresh perspectives, compassion, and cooperation. If we see the world as a series of puzzles instead of a series of battles, we will come up with more and better solutions, and we need solutions more than ever. But this isn’t just a book about puzzles. It’s also a book of puzzles. Within these pages, I have included my favorite puzzles from history. Why just read about the first-­ever crossword puzzle from 1913, when you can solve it? The book contains dozens of historical puzzles spanning all genres.

Since puzzles are all about ingenuity, I also wanted some new puzzles. I considered creating them myself, but I soon realized that making great brainteasers is an art that requires years to master. So I
teamed up with Greg Pliska, one of the most talented puzzlemakers in the world and founder of the delightfully named Exaltation of Larks puzzle company. He created twenty puzzles, each one related to a different chapter of the book, which can be found starting on page 253.

Fermi Problems and AI!
At our next meeting, let's talk about and do some Fermi problems (estimation) and talk about AI solutions to really hard problems (i.e. protein structure, drug discovery, politics, Palestine, weather, etc.). Here is a list of Fermi problems we could work on (we can either look up the answers or there is an answer sheet available which I'll bring):

Fermi Questions Beachwood Invitational 1/28/23 (from Science Olympiad Fermi Questions page)

1. How many students are competing in today’s Beachwood Invitational Division C across all teams?

2. How many Earths, placed side-by-side, would it take to stretch across the Milky Way Galaxy?

3. How long ago, in months, was the first Science Olympiad National Tournament?

4. What is the population density of Ohio, in people per acre?

5. How many matchbox cars placed end-to-end would it take to make a straight line from Cleveland, OH to Cincinnati, OH?

6. How many volleyballs would fit in Lake Erie?

7. 717

8. 1346

9. How many Earths will fit in the Moon?

10. How many total legs would there be in a great hundred dogs plus a score of cats?

11. How many honey bees are there in the world?

12. How long, in minutes, would it take the average person to type Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

13. How many days ago did John Hancock “John Hancock” the Declaration of Independence?

14. If the entire US population stood in a socially-distanced line, how many millimeters would it stretch?

15. What is the land area of Earth in hectares?

16. How many runs have been scored in Major League Baseball’s history?

17. How many accounts follow the most-followed Twitter account?

18. How many letters are in the English Alphabet?

19. How many grains of rice are in a 10 kilogram bag of rice?

20. What are the odds of getting heads on 12 straight flips of a standard quarter?

21. How many Earths does a single water molecule weigh?

22. How tall was Robert Pershing Wadlow, the tallest known human in history, in attometers?

23. What is the weight of an average male Asian elephant, measured in the weight of an average adult American man?

24. How much does an average woman’s fingernail weigh in rontograms?

25. What is the speed of light in meters per second?

26. If every fish on earth was being hunted by every cat on earth, how many cats would there be per fish?

27. How many gigaparsecs is it from Beachwood, OH, to Marietta, OH?

28. How many text characters are in the content pages of Wikipedia?

29. How much electricity was used globally in 2022, in picojoules?

30. How many regular M&Ms would fit inside the sun? Assume the M&Ms do not melt or stick together

31. How many standard lab goggles would it take to equal the weight of a full-grown adult blue whale?

32. How many grains of sand are there on the beaches and deserts on Earth?

33. How many days would it take Usain Bolt to run the average distance from the Earth to the moon and back, assuming he runs continuously and at world-record pace the entire time?

34. What is the brightness of the sun, in lumens?

35. How many fortnights ago did dinosaurs become extinct?

36. How many replacement passenger automobile tires are sold in the US every year?

37. What is the height of Mt. Everest in exameters?

38. How many human babies are born every year?

39. An ampere is equal to how many electrons per second?

40. How many faces are there on a rhombicosidodecahedron?

41. How many standard Oreos placed flat, side by side, would it take to circle the earth at the equator?

42. How many keys are on a standard piano?

43. How many pizzas are ordered in the US every year on Super Bowl Sunday?

44. What is the volume of Lake Erie, in attoliters?

45. What is the volume of a regulation golf ball, in hectoliters?

46. How long would it take a person walking at average human walking speed to travel the distance from NYC to LA?

47. How much water goes over Niagara Falls every year, in teraliters?

48. How many leaflets do Aesculus glabra (Ohio Buckeye) leaves usually contain?

49. 7842 (that's 78 to the 42nd power)

50. How many calories will your team expend on this test if you use your full time allotment?

April 3, 2023 Meeting Notes

We took on the puzzles of the day from the puzzles page at our first meeting. Here they are, with solutions:

1. Given the number \(123456789\), in how many ways can the digits (numerals) of this number be rearranged to form new numbers, and how many of them are divisible by \(3\) – meaning evenly divisible, with remainder \(0\)? [from Excursions in Number Theory, p.11]

Solution: With 9 digits, the number \(123456789\) can be written \(9!\) different ways, which comes out to \(362,880\) different ways. And since in every one of those ways, the digits of the number add up to 9, which is divisible by 3, every one of those \(362,880\) numbers are divisible by 3!

2. Balance the chemical equation for octane combustion:

\[\ce{ C8H18 + O2 -> CO2 + H2O }\]

Solution: Two of our club members got the answer using trial and error:

\[\ce{ 2 C8H18 + 25 O2 -> 16 CO2 + 18 H2O }\]

3. Here's a crossword puzzle I made that uses chemical symbols, DNA base pair symbols and more to make it more interesting. Have a go by clicking the link!

Solution: The solution should be here.

We talked about next steps and types of puzzles we wanted to work on. The group was interested in pattern puzzles, quilts, origami, alphmetics, constrained writing, jigsaw puzzles, constructing fractals, logic puzzles, and more. A great idea was to have a puzzle booth at the Astoria Sunday Market!!

Our next meeting will be Monday, April 10 at 6:30 pm at Peter Pan Market. Look at the puzzles of the day for some starters for this next meeting of NikPik!

April 10, 2023 Meeting Notes

1. Our first puzzle was offered by Dwayne from Bridge & Tunnel. What is the ?

Solution: Our super word sleuths worked out this one; the message is "THIS PUZZLE IS MADE OF SQUARES", so the ? = S. The challenge was put out to create more of these letter pattern puzzles, so maybe we'll get more in future NikPik meetings!

2. Equation Limerick by Bob

Find the equation that this limerick represents:

The area under the parabola whose max is twenty-two
At a distance of five from the origin pointing righty-oo
And whose x's at minus three
Are zero and ten (can't you see?)
Is one hundred and thirty-eight or pretty close to.

Solution: This is a great example of creating a puzzle by first randomly choosing the answer, and then finding a clue that fits, just like crossword puzzle design and Yohaku puzzle design (both topics were covered in Bob's puzzle class in January and February). In this case, Bob first played with creating a downward-facing parabola (a 2nd order polynomial with a negative coefficient on the square term) that would cross the x-axis at reasonable values close to zero, creating an area that would be a reasonably small size, but visible on a Desmos graph. He then graphed it and picked off the applicable values (i.e. max, roots and values of the function at x=-3) and used Microsoft Math Solver to get the answer. This is a particularly difficult example of an equation limerick, but club members were intrigued and followed along. Here's the actual equation:

\[ \int_{5-\sqrt{22}}^{5+\sqrt{22}} -x^2 + 10x - 3 \,dx = \frac{88\sqrt{22}}{3} \approx 137.5855 \]

April 17, 2023 Notes

We spent some time getting some new people up to date with what we've done so far, played a round of Krypto, and then plunged into some of the puzzles that were on the puzzle page.

1. The crypto puzzle was solved by a couple folks.

Solution: PUZZLE CLUB IS TOTALLY AWESOME! Not a surprising phrase for a puzzle club guy!

2. Pair and share (From Alex Bellos' Guardian column) 

The words ‘zero’ and ‘one’ share letters (‘e’ and ‘o’). The words ‘one’ and ‘two’ share a letter (‘o’), and the words ‘two’ and ‘three’ also share a letter (‘t’). How far do you have to count in English to find two consecutive numbers which don’t share a letter in common?

Solution: After thinking about this for a while, several NikPik members couldn't come up with any answers below one hundred, and some deduced (correctly) that there is no such pair in English. There are pairs in a few other languages.

3. Spell it out! (From Alex Bellos' Guardian column)

‘Eleven trillion’ has an interesting property. It consists of 14 letters and when written out is 11,000,000,000,000, which consists of 14 digits. What is the lowest number to have this same property, namely that the number of letters when written as a word equals the number of digits when written in numerals?

Solution: One billion (1,000,000,000).

4. Satisfying sentence (From Alex Bellos' Guardian column)

“This sentence contains _______ letters”. Write a number in words in the blank space in the above sentence that will make the statement true.

Solution: 36 (thirty-six) & 38 (thirty-eight).

We also got a show and tell of a puzzle called Back Spin, and will probably play it at future meetings.