Tag: crossword puzzles

A Few Words on Wordle

Sometime in January I began to notice those yellow-and-green heatmap like grids of 5×6 squares showing up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds. I had no idea what they were, but they reminded me of celluar automata. They seemed to replicate like celluar automata, too, because before long, it seemed like many friends and family members were posting these grids, which I eventually learned was for a word game called Wordle.

I like word game, but I only felt tempted to play Wordle once for the purpose of writing this post. I have no objection to the game, or the viral nature of the posting of game results. I’m just at my limit of what I can handle in a day, and I’ve been avoiding Wordle because I can’t afford to spend any time on it. Time on Wordle means time away from other things.

This year, as a kind of brain exercise, I began waking up to the New York Times mini-crossword. After a little while, I graduated to their regular crossword puzzle, which I try to complete every day. I am medicore at crossword puzzles, at best. Today’s for instance, took me nearly 3 hours to complete. It was a Sunday crossword, so the hardest of the week–and I needed to cheat on a few answers to get the whole puzzle. Three hours was more than I could afford to spend, even on a Sunday. But I consider it practice and it will be interesting to see what my time looks like in December.

I really didn’t know much about Wordle until I read “Why You Can’t Resist Wordle” by Kyle Chayka in The New Yorker. This not only explained the origins of the game (pointing me to a New York Times interview with the game’s creator), but also explained the mechanics of the game, and the origin of the game’s name–a play on the creator’s name: Josh Wardle.

The mechanics are interesting:

  • you start from scratch, making a complete guess at the first 5-letter word. The word “adieu” is a popular first choice because it contains four of the five vowels.
  • the colors guide you to how many letters you got: gray and the letter is not in the word; yellow and it’s there, but not in the right position; green, you’ve got the right letter in the right position.
  • from there, you have five more guesses to get the word.

Unlike a crossword puzzle, this seems fairly algorithmic to me. That it, it seems as if it could be solved with some simple searches against a dictionary. Never having played the game, I went to scribble out some regular expressions on paper that might work for each step in the process, where the expression checks against all of the 5-letter words in the Unix dictionary. Then I thought: I can’t be the first person to think of this–and did a Google search.

I’m not the first person to think regular expressions can solve Wordle puzzles.

I say this is different from crossword puzzles because often a crossword solution is a play on words, or a pun, or a slang reference, and not necessarily something that can be found by algorithm. I noted this last March when I wondered if an AI could solve the New York Times crossword. If it could, I suggested than it should be called The Shortz Test.

One nice thing about Wordle is that it is relatively quick. I think my attempt for this post took about 5 minutes. I didn’t use regular expressions, and I did start with “adieu.” As it turned out, my word had only one vowel, which made it tricky. You can see my play in the image above.

Attempting the Times crossword puzzle first thing in the morning can take a little while. But I’ve also found it is a good way to wake up my brain without immediately jumping into the (often depressing) news of the day.

At least I now know how to read those Wordle grids. I love that they are self-contained histories of the game that was played. It means I can see how my friends are doing and cheer them on.

Written on January 23, 2022.

The Shortz Test

I do some of my best thinking in the shower. In last night’s shower, I was thinking about artificial intelligence. A.I. systems have a come a long way since folks like Alan Turing, Marvin Minsky, and others first begin thinking about them. Many systems today seem to provide at least the illusion of passing the Turing test. I think of Siri and Alexa as just two examples. I’m sure some readers will debate whether or not these pass the Turing test. Let me state that for my purposes, they give me the illusion of doing so–so much that I am often compelled to thank them for their tasks. When my parents taught me to say thank you, they said you always say thank you. They didn’t make exceptions for artificial intelligence.

What I wondered while rinsing the shampoo from my hair last night was this: is there some obvious task I can give to a purported AI that would convince me it is, in fact, intelligent? People often point to chess (a game for which I have no skill or patience) and the IBM AI that can beat just about any human. That is an amazing feat of programming, but I’m not sure it convinces me. Is there something else that would convince me?

I allowed my mind to drift. Showers these days are pretty much the only time my mind really drifts, completely disconnected from the world. I thought about chess, about games, and puzzles. I thought about crossword puzzles, which led me to think about some of the great clues in crosswords that are occasionally recycled. My favorite is the 3 letter word for “Little giant,” which of course is “Ott” for Mel Ott, the 5′-9″right fielder for the New York Giants from 1925-1947.

Given a blank crossword, and the first clue “Little giant”, could an A.I. complete the crossword? Could it figure out through techniques of machine learning and neural networks that “Little giant” = “Ott”?

Perhaps it could, but it seems it would be quite a challenge because it involves a clue containing not just a metaphor but a pun. Moreover, the answer is a proper noun and the correct answer is not the first name (also three letters) but the last name. If more of a challenge were need it, could an AI complete a crossword puzzle “in ink”–that is, without having to correct itself once it put down an answer? Thus, if it answered “Mel” instead of “Ott” it would be stuck with it.

I’m better at crosswords than I am at chess, but I’m still in the lower ranks of crossword solvers I know. I’ve picked up on patterns along the way, however. When the clue is plural the answer is plural, for instance. Would an AI pick up on subtleties like that? Many crossword clues or answers are based on some kind of pun, homonym, or other quirk of English. How do you teach the concept of puns to an AI?

I emerged from my shower with the idea for a new test for AI’s. Instead of the Turing Test, I’d call it the Shortz Test.

After writing this post, I did something I don’t often do: I did a Google search to see if anyone had written on this topic before. I typed “Can AI solve a crossword puzzle” into Google. There were plenty of matches, so I guess this thought isn’t original with me. And clearly, I am not the only one who thinks that crossword puzzles may prove a particular challenge for AIs.

I wonder if they got their idea in the shower, too?