Kominers's Conundrums: Maps Can Be Quite Mysterious

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(Bloomberg Opinion) — Once you really get into puzzles, you start seeing them in everyday objects.(1) Even a simple atlas can turn into a Conundrum: Without the labels, you’re left scratching your head trying to figure out what the symbols represent.

This week we’re looking at two such mysterious maps, created in collaboration with one of my students who goes by the nom de plume Spaceman Spiff. Each one plots some structured information, and your challenge is to figure out what the points represent.

And while of course the data must somehow be geographically distributed, we haven’t limited ourselves to purely geographic features like the presence of lakes and monuments. The underlying pattern could reflect pretty much anything: demographic data, the price of eggs, or even historical milestones.

The first one is a bit of a warm-up – figuring it out shouldn’t be the biggest challenge.(2) 

The second is the main event. It’s more difficult because in some sense it’s a map in motion: if we had waited another couple of months, there’d be one more dot in Russia.

You might use all your quantitative skill to figure out what this map represents, and then discover it actually isn’t about the numbers at all.

A couple ground rules: Each map represents a single, well-defined category, rather than something subjective. And the answer to each has something to do with the actual places, rather than other features like wordplay. That means the answer will be something like “locations of the mountains more than 10,000 feet tall,” rather than “major cities with a prime number of letters in their name.” Additionally, the data we used is publicly available and easily accessible. That means if you get a hunch, it should be straightforward to figure out if you’re right.

So what are you waiting for? Get out your charts and compass and start exploring!

If you map out one or both answers – or if you even make partial progress – please let me know at [email protected].net before midnight New York time on Wednesday, August 12. (If you get stuck, there’ll be a hint announced in Bloomberg Opinion Today on Tuesday, August 11. Sign up here.) To be counted in the solver list, please include your full name with your answer.

Last Week’s Conundrum

Fourteen famous figures gave us clues that led to a single person:

As solvers started identifying our celebrities, they noticed a shared feature that was too unusual to be an accident: Each one had the same first and last initial.(3)That enabled us to convert each person into a single letter; reading in order then gave the message, “WHO FACES APOLLO[?].”

First row:

Walt Whitman Helen Hunt Oona O’Neil

Second row:

Fred Flintstone Alan Alda Chubby Checker Emilio Estevez Sylvester Stallone

Third row:

Adam Ant Pablo Picasso Ozzy Osbourne Lindsay Lohan Lucy Liu Olive Oyl

But where to go from there? There are many potential Apollos to choose from – the name appears everywhere from Greek myth to space exploration.

But I had hinted that the Conundrum’s answer was “hardly hidden,” and there was only one Apollo related to our famous fourteen: Apollo Creed, whom Sylvester Stallone faces in multiple movies as Rocky Balboa.

Once you were on that track, you could recognize several other clues pointing in the same direction: My description of the figures as having been “boxed up,” not to mention the lines “quest for an answer” and “rise up to the challenge” in the Conundrum text, both of which are riffs on Rocky theme music.

So indeed, “Sylvester Stallone” was the answer. And as promised, he was “hardly hidden.” He was looking at readers the whole time.

Lazar Ilic solved first, followed soon after by Anna Collins, Jeff Schwartz, Ellen & Bill Kominers, and Zoz. Others among the 28 solvers included Ross Berger(4) & Sally Bloom, Kid Beyond, Andrew Bradburn, Michael Branicky, Ryan Buell, Hensley Carrasco, Filbert Cua, Philip Davidson, Rosie & Jack DeStories, Karl Mahlburg, Jeffrey & Patricia Miron, Tamar Oostrom & Pari Sastry, Ross Rheingans-Yoo, Ari Shnidman, Clive Sindelman, Nancy & Murray Stern, and Jeff Young.

Suproteem Sarkar wrote a software script to identify all the images using Google. FiveThirtyEight’s Riddler, Zach Wissner-Gross, submitted a boxing glove emoji.

And as we learned with our pyramid puzzles a few weeks ago, sometimes stars collide in ways that give Conundrums multiple solutions. Jonathan Zandberg took a trip down the rabbit hole to uncover a particularly spectacular alternate answer: It turns out that there is a book series called “The Trials of Apollo,” the first volume of which is “The Hidden Oracle” (“hardly hidden”). On the cover, Apollo looks upward at (we might say, he “faces”) the name of the author – Rick Riordan, who has the same first and last initial, just like our fourteen.

The Bonus Round

Try a puzzle snack from Eric Berlin or a watermelon snack at the zoo; play Codenames online; and swap windows with people around the world. Bird song opera; Quantum Darwinism (hat tip: Christian Catalini); a new pangram (hat tip: Robin Houston); “The Crossword Revolution Is Upon Us” (hat tip: Ellen Kominers). Raccoon artists (hat tip: Jiafeng Chen). And inquiring minds want to know: hybrid fish?

(1) In this column, we’ve already puzzled over chessboards, light switches, and chocolate bars.

(2) Although with apologies, we know that it will be slightly harder for readers based outside the United States.

(3) In hopes of getting readers to notice this, each paragraph in the Conundrum finished with two words that had the same first letter – “famous figures,” “full family,” “logical leaps,” and so forth.

(4) His grandfather was apparently in Rocky III!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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