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Kominers’s Conundrums: Country Music Can Save the World

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·8 min read
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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s hard not to be a Dolly Parton fan – especially this week, as it’s come to light that her personal philanthropy helped fund one of the leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates.

It might sound unusual to have a country music icon financing medical research. But in fact, Parton has been helping save the world for decades. In parallel with her singing and songwriting career, she’s also worked to create jobs, fund disaster relief and promote literacy.

This week’s Conundrum — which I wrote jointly with Zoe DeStories and my mother, Ellen Dickstein Kominers — is a way of saying thanks. We’ve imagined a number of ways that Parton and other country stars could use their superpowers to solve big challenges, some more realistic than others. Each clue can be filled in with the name of a country song.

Taking the first letters from each song title and putting them in a certain order will give you a two-word phrase that Parton could now add to her CV. That well-earned honorific is this week’s answer. (For consistency, you should spell out all numbers in the song titles even if that’s not the way they’re listed officially.(1))

With thirteen clues, you’ll have a lot of letters to unscramble. But with a little luck, Dolly Parton might even be able to help you simplify that problem.

Got the rules? Then here goes:

Dolly Parton says “Abracadabra” and moves huge rock formations with a little __. Diamond Rio facilitates a stimulus bill compromise by getting everyone to __. George Strait makes poker interesting again with an __. Dolly Parton promotes world peace with an __. Johnny Cash helps everyone at the campsite roast marshmallows by setting up a __. Martina McBride makes the world believe in love again by sending everyone Sweethearts and a __. Dolly Parton defeats Dracula with a __. Dolly Parton helps people working across time zones trick their circadian rhythms and get some shuteye with an __. Dolly Parton ends Montague-Capulet strife with the help of __. Brad Paisley helps cash-strapped sourdoughs become musicians so they can earn some __. Dolly Parton gives us our lives back by limiting the workday to __. Garth Brooks saves the world’s food supply from Aesop’s fox with a __. Dolly Parton makes kids’ pony dreams come true, with the help of Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, and __.

If you solve this Conundrum of many clues — or if you even make partial progress — please let us know at skpuzzles@bloomberg.net before midnight New York time on Friday, November 27.

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.

Programming note: There will be a Conundrum the Sunday after Thanksgiving, November 29. We hope you enjoy the holiday in the meantime!

Previously in Kominers’s Conundrums …

Our tribute to Alex Trebek featured seven “Jeopardy!”-style clues, with a wrinkle: Each had one word wrong. The goal was to solve the clues and figure out how to fix them; the corrected words hinted at the Conundrum answer, which we indicated was “one of the most important game shows in history.”

Here are the clues with their answers (corrected words in parentheses):

FAMOUS FOOTWEAR for 100: These sparkly red pumps will take you from &pizza (Oz) to Kansas. // What are the RUBY SLIPPERS? PLACES for 500: Home of the Nationals, the Manatees (Wizards), and the “Caps,” as well as a football team. // Where is WASHINGTON, DC?(2) AESTHETIC ARITHMETIC for 100: 28 and 496 are examples of this rare type of integer; it’s a major open question whether any such numbers are hexagonal (odd). // What are PERFECT NUMBERS? “SOLO” ACTS for 200: When told, “There’s some chance you shot first,” he might answer, “Never tell me the facts (odds)!” // Who is HAN SOLO?(3) PLAYTIME for 100: This brick-builders’ amusement park is a flagship property of Nestlé (Merlin) Entertainments. // What is LEGOLAND? QUESTIONABLE ANSWERS for 300: This British rock band is known for hits like “Baba O’Riley” and “Pinball Atkins (Wizard)” — as well as for destroying equipment on stage. // Who are THE WHO?(4) GAME GEAR for 700: This device keeps track of which monsters you’ve seen, and provides useful information such as “Moltres (Oddish) evolves into Gloom.” // What is a POKÉDEX?

Three of the corrected words directly or indirectly referenced wizards; three others all pointed to the word “odd.” And the seventh was “Oz.” Together, these suggested the answer “THE WIZARD OF ODDS” — where Trebek got his start as a host.

But the Conundrum wasn’t quite done there. As we hinted, there was a hidden “Double Jeopardy!” bonus round. To start solving that, the first thing to notice was that there was information we provided that wasn’t used anywhere in the main puzzle.

(If you didn’t solve this part and want to practice your puzzle-solving, maybe go back to the clues now and try to figure out what that extra information was.)

Every clue had not just a category name but also a point value. You could drop the zeros from the point value to get a number between 1 and 7, and then look at the corresponding letters in both the answer and the misfit word. (It was the “double” round, after all.) Doing this spelled out a hidden message: “RIP ALEX”, “& THANKS”.(5)


This was one of our most popular Conundrums ever, with over 225 solvers, 39 of whom also solved at least half of the “Double Jeopardy!” round. (And of course, we gave kudos to anyone who submitted their answers in the form of a question.)

Zoz* solved (both parts) first, followed by Lazar Ilic, Elizabeth Sibert, Michael Thaler, John Owens^, Suproteem Sarkar, Spaceman Spiff, Ellen & Bill Kominers, Eric Price*, AZ*, Adam Green, Taylor Finn & Kylie Wolfe^, Stephanie Spina, Curtis Page, Lucy Smith, and Chris Olds. Other solvers included Tim Abel^, Amelia Adams, Joey Amiel^, Aaron Aquino & Rachel Song^, Kendall Bagley*, Erin Bailey, Jamie Benigna, Stevie Bujold & Daniel Zaharopol^, Joey Carmello^, Nick Chambers^, Devan Cook, Elliot & Shannon Croom^, Lee DiGeorge^, Cole Catherine Dunnam^, William Ederer & Kenna Zimmerman^, Eli Edwards, Seth Feinberg^, Felicity Flesher, Melissa Galvin, Sara Garcia, Peter Goetze, Joshua Goodman, Staffan H.^, Eli H. Spencer Heyman^, Libby Leffler Hoaglin, Eoin Jaquith, Sean Johnston, Roy Kimmey, Akaash Kolluri & Madeline Carlson, Paul Kominers^, Yi-Hsin Lin^, Rachel Lujan^, Lucy Mangham, Adam Maresca^, Sam Mazzarelli, Kelly Meaden*, Michael Meehan^, Daniel, Jeffrey, & Patricia Miron, Natalie Nixon, Crit Obara, Angela Ognev, Nathan Phillips, Abby Pickus, Susannah Pryal^, Krissy Rezzelle, Gregory Ritter^, River^, Jared S.^, Hannah Seo, Lecia Sequist, Brandon Schwartz & Rachael Zisk*, Roya Shariat, Ben Spainhour^, Nancy & Murray Stern, Mia Sulaiman, Adam Swanson^, Connor Swikart, Chris Tempro, HaiDang Tran^, Ashley Tse^, Chris Wilburn*, Jaclyn Wilson^, Michaela Wilson^, and Connor Zickgraf^. (Asterisks indicate those who also solved the full “Double Jeopardy!” round; carets indicate those who solved half of it.) The full solver list is available here.

Several solvers suggested potential alternate “Double Jeopardy!” answers: Kris Keyser pointed out that “Alex Trebek” himself could be the answer to the question “Who was the Wizard of Odds?”. Martha Moneymaker and Laura Odelius suggested the answer might be “Hollywood Squares,” which Trebek had wanted to host but never did. Ashley Helenihi, Ellen & Bill Kominers, Kayla Langborgh & Cody Ruben and Clint Tauscher observed that the sum of the point values was precisely 2000, which is the highest point value in “Double Jeopardy!”.

The Bonus Round

Play with this online spirograph (hat tip: Elizabeth Sibert); solve this bugbear puzzle. Self-icing tsunami cakes; election eclipse paths (hat tip: Riddler Zach Wissner-Gross); mathematicians’ favorite chalk (hat tip: Ellen Dickstein Kominers). Google celebrates Mandelbrot, the “father of fractal geometry”; the Animaniacs catch up on the last 20 years. “Money, Power, Education And Opportunity”; Scooby Doo Jeopardy!; a Thanksgiving math mystery. And inquiring minds want to know: Why did the turkey cross the road?

(1) We don't want to make you have to look up the original albums just to see whether the numbers were spelled out. And we really don't want to get into an argument about whether numbers are letters or not.

(2) The "a football team" referenced the fact that Washington's football team is currently looking for a new name.

(3) Like in "Jeopardy!," the "SOLO" in quotation marks in the category name indicated that the answer would contain "SOLO".

(4) A “questionable answer,” indeed. Other answers in this category could've included "What The What?!? Weekend," "The Who, the What, and the When" and "The Why Why Family."

(5) From the puzzle constructor's perspective, there were several other ways to guess that this might be roughly how the "Double Jeopardy!” round would proceed: First, it was notable that "700" is not a normal Jeopardy point score, suggesting that the "7"must've been significant somehow. Similarly, "&pizza"is a seemingly very specific choice for a word that could've been any location, suggesting that maybe the misfit words were themselves significant.

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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