Kominers’s Conundrums: A Puzzle in Honor of Mothers Everywhere

Happy Mother’s Day! Here at Conundrums, we’re celebrating in our customary way: A puzzle honoring moms everywhere, including yours and mine.

The clues below describe common words — many of them “mother” or “spring” themed. Your goal is to figure out what they are. To help you check your answers, we’ve made sure that each clued word would also make sense if put together with some of the words at the end of the clue text.

So for example, “This gem is one you might say an oyster is the mother of (5)” could be cluing “PEARL,” which fits with “mother of” to make the phrase “mother of PEARL.”

The first number in parentheses following each clue indicates the number of letters in the answer.

But that’s not all. We’ve also given two other numbers for each clue, separated by a comma. Those indicate two letters that you should pull out of each answer word.What do you do with those letters? Using half of them — one from each answer — you should be able to spell out this week’s answer, which is a trait shared by our favorite mothers around the world.

But which letters should you choose from each pair? That you’ll have to puzzle out for yourself!

As you work through the clues, don’t forget to be on the lookout for patterns and possible meanings among the indicated letters — you might be able to figure out the answer to the full Conundrum without solving every individual clue. 

(And what to make of those letters you don’t use in the overall answer? You might want to hang onto them for use in the future.)

If you manage to make sense of this Mother’s Day mystery — or if you even make partial progress — please let us know at [email protected] before midnight New York time on Thursday, May 13.

If you get stuck, there’ll be hints announced on Twitter and in Bloomberg Opinion Today. To be counted in the solver list, please include your name with your answer. And don’t forget to sign up for our Conundrums email list!

Programming note: The next Conundrums will run on May 16.

Previously in Kominers’s Conundrums…

For Star Wars Day (May the “Fourth” be with you!), we had to figure out the secret weak point of the Empire’s new Death Star. Rebel agent “Zigzag” managed to get ahold of the information, but unfortunately it was encrypted — as were most of the decryption instructions.

The first instruction was “SHIFT ALL LETTERS BACK ONE SPACE,” and as we indicated in the Conundrum itself, applying that transformation to the second instruction gave “DROP LETTERS IN NAME OF BOUNTY HUNTER WHO CAPTURED HAN SOLO. THEN DECRYPT WITH MORSE CODE; X MARKS THE DOT.”

That suggested how to decrypt the third instruction: first, you had to identify the relevant bounty Hunter (Boba Fett, arguably the coolest character in all of Star Wars); dropping all of the letters in his name from the encrypted form of the instruction took us from this message …

… to a much shorter one:

Reading that in Morse code with “X” interpreted as “dot” and “Y” as “dash” spelled out:

But looking at the fourth instruction, you could see it was quite far from having “no try” — indeed, the word “TRY” seems to be everywhere:

But you could fix that — dropping each instance of “TRY” led to the much more readable message:

These four instructions could then be successively applied to the main ciphertext. Applying the first three in exactly the same way as before yielded this very long string of letters (which we couldn’t fit on the page without the help of a few hyphens):

But what to do from there? If you just read every fourth letter, you got gobbledygook. First, you had to “use the force equation” from physics, which is “F = MA.” The text was full of “MA”s; replacing each one with “F” led to a slightly shorter string:

Reading every fourth letter there spelled out the weak point: “EXHAUST ACCESS SHAFT ALPHA.” While the Empire has apparently finally learned you have to cover the exhaust port, they forgot about the access shaft!(“ALPHA” was a bit of wordplay on the fact that this was a letter/decryption puzzle, and fit with the confirmatory clue that you were looking for the “Death Star’s Achilles’s heel.”)

There was a bonus puzzle, too, which was to figure out agent Zigzag’s secret identity. Looking carefully at the BL00M-Bg terminal readout that transmitting the secret plans revealed a bit of information that had not been used in the main puzzle — the “FROM” line, which said:

It was natural to guess that this somehow encoded Zigzag’s name — but how?

The phrase “CODENAME ENCRYPTION” was suggestive, but “SOPLRNYE” didn’t have the same number of letters as “Zigzag” (and besides, if we already knew the codename, what would be the use of encrypting it?).

But it wasn’t that we had encrypted the codename; rather, the codename itself described the encryption scheme. A few solvers recalled or discovered the existence of a “Zigzag Cipher,” in which words are written in rows or “levels” in a zigzag pattern. Using the appropriate decryption method with three levels gave:

Reading starting from the top left spelled out Zigzag’s identity: “SPYLO REN,” which of course was a pun on the name “Kylo Ren.”

And believe it or not, there was one more Easter egg hidden in this Conundrum: if you read every second letter in the decrypted ciphertext rather than every fourth, you would find the message “MIKE IS EVEN COOLER THAN GMT,” a shout-out to my editor, who is indeed even cooler than Grand Moff Tarkin (who is definitely the coolest character in all of Star Wars).

Zoz* solved first, for the fifth week in the row; up next were Noam D. Elkies, Lazar Ilic, Adam Slomoi, Matthew Stein, Franklyn Wang & Cindy Yang, Zarin Pathan*, Ruth Hofrichter & Matthew Smith*, and Michael Thaler. The other 16 solvers were Hernando Cortina*, Elizabeth Grove, Luke Harney*, Namitha Jagadeesh, Maya Kaczorowski*, Rachel Kaufman, Paul Kominers, Michael Perusse, Fernando Raffan-Montoya, Ross Rheingans-Yoo, Maggie Schreiter*, Spaceman Spiff, Sanandan Swaminathan*, Nathaniel Ver Steeg, Michaela Wilson, and Rostyslav Zatserkovnyi. (Asterisks indicate solvers who also figured out Zigzag’s identity.) Schreiter pointed out that Zigzag’s name also anagrams to “LONER SPY”; Zatserkovnyi reminded us of this third Death Star. To our knowledge, Wang & Yang were the only ones who noticed the Grand Moff Tarkin Easter egg. And thanks especially to Adam Rosenfield* for test-solving!

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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