MGWCC #709

crossword 6:09 
meta DNF 


hello and welcome to episode #709 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Permutation Situation”. for this week 5 puzzle, the instructions tell us that we’re looking for a well-known American university. okay. what are the theme answers? i don’t know at all. there are four long answers in the grid arranged in a pinwheel fashion, so let’s start with those:

  • {Standing Rock Indian Reservation people} BLACKFOOT SIOUX.
  • {Money bet on a stock’s price going down} SHORT POSITION.
  • {Building atrophied muscles back, e.g.} PHYSIOTHERAPY.

if these are theme answers, what do we do with them? the title suggests permuting or rearranging things, but i can’t see what that might mean for these clues or answers. i suppose it could mean we are supposed to anagram something, although “permutation” would be a somewhat weird way of expressing that. to me, it should rather connote rearranging words in a clue or answer rather than rearranging the letters in a word, although i’d be hard-pressed to explain precisely why i think that.

anyway, there’s no way to permute the one word DISCONTENTMENT or its one-word clue {Malaise}. this doesn’t have to mean the idea is wrong—it’s possible DISCONTENTMENT just isn’t a theme answer, or at least not one of the them answers we’re supposed to permute. but it’s certainly discouraging. in the other theme answers, perhaps “muscles back” -> “back muscles” (suggesting LATS) is an idea, but a) i don’t know where that idea is going, since LATS isn’t in the grid, and b) i don’t see other places to do that.

what else could we permute? i did have a thought that we might be looking for clues in the answers and vice versa, but if that’s what is happening here, i don’t see it. there were a couple of unusually blatant dupes between grid entries and clue words: {Mercy Corps et al.} NGOS and then {Part of NGO} NON, plus {Italian side} RISOTTO and {Smaller dish} SIDE. there are plenty of other ways to clue NON and RISOTTO without using NGO or SIDE, so this may well be deliberate… but on the other hand, it also might not. i’d love to find more instances if this is what we’re supposed to be looking for, but i didn’t see others.

one mechanism that occurred to me is a clue with multiple answers, only one of which goes in the grid. for example, i noticed that {Japanese word in a Clint Eastwood title} is the clue for IWO, which notably also could be a clue for JIMA, and {Part of USSR} clues SOC but it could certainly also be SOV—in fact i did try SOV first but it did not fit the crossing down entry, {Tallest player on an NBA court, almost always} CENTER. and speaking of the NBA, {NBA great who guested on an episode of “The Office”} was the clue for DR J, but it is also true of kevin MCHALE.

there are actually a lot of other clues that look like they could have alternate answers, but of course it’s often the case that crossword clues are not uniquely identifying. i did notice that {Tiny bug} APHID could also be a clue for {Stinging thing} BEE, which could in turn be a clue for BARB or something like that (but BARB isn’t in the grid).

well, i don’t have it and it’s noon. i don’t think the deadline was extended 3 hours, so i’m just giving up. i don’t feel i was ever on a right track with this one.

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29 Responses to MGWCC #709

  1. Flinty Steve says:

    The solution is in the plenitude of entries with I_O_S_T permutations, leading to the answer Ohio State University.

  2. Jonesy says:

    You take the four letters IOST which are in the grid significantly more than normal and then look for all permutations (there are 24 in total).

    The only one not contained in a grid entry is IOST, which is contained in OHIO STATE

  3. Neville says:

    The Kevin McHale that appeared on “The Office” is the one from “Glee,” not the NBA.

  4. Eric says:

    23/24 permutations of the letters STIO are found in the 19×19 grid. The missing permutation, IOST, can be generated by OHIOSTATE, a well-known American university.

  5. Maggie W. says:

    To follow up on Flinty Steve, every permutation of I-O-S-T is in an entry (ISOT in RISOTTO, OSIT in SHORT POSITION, OTSI in BLACKFOOT SIOUX, etc., etc.), except IOST, which is part of OHIO STATE.

  6. Mutman says:

    Great meta!

    A nano-ding goes to seeing OTSI twice in the grid (blackfoOTSIoux and pOTSIe). Had to determine no meta impact with that one.

    All in all, I am always happy to get a week 5!

    Nice job Matt!

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      That threw me for a while, by causing me to overlook TSIO in BLACKFOOTSIOUX (the substring that entry is actually needed for).

  7. Adam Rosenfield says:

    When I can’t get started on a meta, I do a letter frequency analysis of the grid. This usually goes nowhere, but in this puzzle each of O, I, and S were 3-4 standard deviations about the mean, and that led me to the solution. The last time I can remember that working for me was in MGWCC #278 from 8 years ago(!).

    Possible alternative answers if the instructions were different: RADIO STATION, VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR

    • Alex B. says:

      This makes two weeks in a row that Mechapuzzle ( was actually useful! I do not expect that streak to continue.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I do the same. The last time I remember finding it useful was in MGWCC #630, a year and a half ago.

      [I]n this puzzle each of O, I, and S were 3-4 standard deviations abo[ve] the mean

      Those are three of the most common letters in English: it would be surprising if their numbers weren’t far above the mean. The same three letters last week were 3-7 standard deviations above the mean, which signified nothing in particular. More notable, IMO, was that all of them outnumbered E this week, a rare occurrence.

      • Adam Rosenfield says:

        I’m measuring relative to standard English letter frequency, with stddev = sqrt(n*p*(1-p)). English frequency doesn’t necessarily match crossword frequency (ideally I’d like to use a large corpus of crossword data for that), but it should be close enough. On average, common letters like O, I, and S roughly come up as either +/- over the mean.

        In most puzzles, most letters are within 1-2 stddevs of the mean by this methodology. Sometimes 3 stddevs over, especially for rare letters like JQKXZ, where just 1-2 of those in the grid can make them seem inflated due to the low stddev). 4+ stddevs is exceptionally rare, and I’ve definitely never seen anything as high as 7 stddevs using this.

        • C. Y. Hollander says:

          Ah, you compare their frequencies in a puzzle with their average frequencies in English? That makes much more sense than what I thought you meant, which was that you compared their frequencies in a puzzle with the mean frequency of all letters in that puzzle (i.e. 26 ÷ total letter count).

        • Alex B. says:

          @Adam Rosenfield
          If you’re curious, here’s the distribution Mechapuzzle uses, pulled from a large corpus of 15x puzzles. Not very different from the standard English frequencies you linked to, of course, but slightly more apples-to-apples.

          var standard_letter_distribution = [11.3, 1.9, 2.9, 3.6, 13.0, 1.1, 2.0, 2.4, 6.3, 0.3, 1.1, 5.1, 2.9, 6.0, 7.7, 2.9, 0.1, 6.9, 8.8, 7.2, 2.4, 0.8, 1.1, 0.3, 1.6, 0.3];

          • Adam Rosenfield says:

            Thanks! Some interesting differences there, particularly for H (6.094% in English vs. 2.4% in crosswords).

  8. Margaret says:

    Oh crud. My friend found all the permutations except the missing IOST and we concluded it was IOwa STate. Never thought of Ohio State. Bummer. I see now that IOST is contained by Ohio state but the Iowa state answer seemed so clear!

  9. david glasser says:

    My late grandmother would be disappointed if I failed to note that no commenter before me has written the correct answer (although it was certainly reasonable for Matt to grade it more leniently).

    The correct answer is THE Ohio State University.

    • Mutman says:

      Don’t get too cocky out there — you have Urban Meyer haunting your recent past.

    • Flinty Steve says:

      Yeah, yeah – don’t worry. I submitted it with the “The,” even though I live in the state with The University of Michigan.

  10. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 269 right answers this week, 43 of whom included the definite article.

  11. Tom Bassett/ MajordomoTom says:

    I saw lots of variations/permutations of TRIO in the grid, I was close to the correct path, but not quite there.


    There’s always another week.

    also, TANSTAAFL

  12. anna g says:

    i saw the OSTI cluster in three of the four long entries, but the fact that it wasn’t in DISCONTENTMENT led me to believe that was a fluke and i dropped it, oops

  13. John says:

    i have no idea why i wasn’t thinking of crossing between words. I was thinking of sending in Marist College but didn’t make the time. I thought since the puzzle was late the deadline would reflect that. Obviously didn’t matter.

  14. Seth says:

    Ugghhh I actually noticed something weird happening with those letters, but tried other more pointed things than just looking for permutations around the grid. This one seems suuuuper week 5: there is absolutely nothing anywhere to hint at looking at those letters, other than a random gut feeling you get while staring at the grid that something IS OTherworldly.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      By the numbers, it seems to have been more like a week 4 on average (269 correct answers, almost the same as the last week [4] of the previous month, which had 270 solutions.

      Naturally, your mileage may vary. For me, “Permutations” was a big hint to look for those in the grid. I didn’t start by looking at random substrings, to be sure, but two of the permutations in question (OTIS and ITOS) take up their entire words (and are therefore anagrams/permutations of each other), which was another foothold.

      Counting all the letters in the puzzle, à la Adam Rosenfield, was another way in, potentially.

  15. Jason T says:

    I just noticed that there seemed to be tons of I’s and O’s in the grid, and lots of odd phrases that contained I’s and O’s: SO IT IS, RISOTTO, TO SIR, SO TIRED, IDIOTS, etc. For a long while I tried to make something work with just the I’s and O’s: no luck, of course. Then somehow a day later I noticed the recurring pattern with the other two letters. And the rest is hISTOry!

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